There can have been few stranger spectacles in recent Italian history than the sight of Adriano Sofri, now 55 years old and a respected journalist and teacher, walking into a Pisa prison for a crime committed in another era and quite possibly, by another man.
Sofri, along with two other ex-members of the defunct Lotta Continua, the revolutionary organisation he co-founded in 1969, had been found guilty by the Italian Supreme Court on 15 January of organising the murder of the Milanese police commissioner, Luigi Calabresi, shot twice in the chest leaving his home in 1972. The killing was immediately assumed to be a revenge killing after the earlier death of a young anarchist, Giuseppe Pinelli, in Calabresi's custody.
The verdict, and the severity of the 22-year prison sentence, were all the more shocking given the sober respectability Sofri had attained in late middle age. A commentator for both L'Espresso and Panorama magazines, Sofri also taught at the Accademia di belle Arti in Florence. Like the other firebrands of his generation, it seemed, early radicalism had merely been the prelude to a creative and responsible maturity. After all, even Massimo D'Alema, the leader of the PDS, had admitted to once throwing a petrol bomb, caught up in the bearpit that was Italian politics in the 1970s. Suddenly though, the past has caught up with Sofri and cast the darkest of shadows over his future.
The doubts surrounding the conviction are considerable. The prosecution's case was sufficiently fragile for the charges to be thrown out of court on three separate occasions over the last seven years. It rested solely upon the disputed evidence of a former "comrade", Leonardo Marino, who waited sixteen years before alleging in 1988 that Sofri had ordered him to drive the getaway car on the day of the assassination. His testimony has never been corroborated and aspects of it were inconsistent.
But the circumstances ensured that Sofri's would be no ordinary trial. To examine the case, the judges were obliged to examine a past which might aswell have been another country. The hearings, which lasted nearly seven years, were a tour of all the yesterdays that Italy would rather forget - a journey through years in which the country came perilously close to civil war.
Prosecutors and defendants struggled to reconstruct motives, values and intentions that belonged to an age when Revolution was considered a real possibility, and the state was prepared to use any means to prevent it. The trial in effect became an investigation into the sins of a generation.
In 1990, Sofri handed the judges a written `Memoir' arguing his innocence and explaining the oddities of defending the person he was in 1972: "I had to overcome a resistance to fighting on an old battleground which I had abandoned a long time ago," he wrote. "I couldn't defend myself as I am today, with my more rounded thoughts, my good manners and my old books. I had to defend the person I was then, sharp-tongued, vituperative, constantly on the move. I was faced with the alternative of confounding time and identifying absolutely with the person I was, or denouncing that person and losing my relationship to my own past."
Sofri's past was an exemplarary version of the radicalism which swept through Italy in the wake of the events of 1968. Born in Trieste in 1942, he was 26 and studying in Pisa when student unrest gripped Europe. It was the right place at the right time for one of the outstanding intellects of that generation of students. The Università Normale di Pisa, an elite institution comparable to Oxford, Harvard or Freiburg, was rivalled only by "La Statale" in Milan as a centre of radical thought and action in Italy.
The dry, acerbic Sofri quickly made a political impression. One icy exchange with the venerable leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), Palmiro Togliatti, during a general meeting, entered student folklore. After Togliatti's speech, Sofri cornered the ageing patriarch of the left and asked him "Why haven't you made the revolution? Togliatti responded: "Make it yourselves." It was clear that Sofri had no time for the reformism of the "institutionalised" left. In 1969 he co-founded Lotta Continua, devoted to developing the politics of mass struggle outside Parliament.
The early seventies represented the high watermark of LC's activities and popularity. "Let's kidnap the bosses" was a favourite headline in the group's paper. "Prendiamo la Città" (Let's take over the city) was another Sofri-inspired slogan. But, unlike other organisations, the group scrupulously avoided terrorist activity, wary of provoking the Italian state into violent repression.
At this time, along with Mario Capanna who led the students' movement, Sofri was the most charismatic performer in the youthful extra-parliamentary left. He was ironic, clever and angry, the worst nightmare of every bourgeois parent. A brief spell in prison did nothing to harm his reputation.
But by 1976, as far as Sofri was concerned, the game was over. Although Italy had become progressively more violent, the Revolution had come no nearer. Those still committed to the cause were drifting steadily towards the isolated acts of terrorism which would culminate with the Red Brigades. After a disastrous excursion into electoral politics, where the LC was routed by the PCI, Sofri took the decision to dissolve the organisation, ending it seemed a tortured chapter in Italian politics. Sofri moved on to a quieter life.
Twelve years later, and 16 years after the murder of Calabresi, Sofri's nemesis appeared in the shape of Leonardo Marino. A working class former Lotta Continua footsoldier, he told Carabinieri (who approached whom is not clear) that a meeting in Pisa on 13 May 1972, Sofri and Giorgio Pietrostefani ordered him to drive the getaway car for Calabresi's assassination. The murder itself, he alleged, was carried by Ovidio Bompressi. The motive was revenge for Pinelli's death.
There followed nine years of arguments about times, places and ideologies. Aside from factual holes in Marino's testimony. Sofri's defence was that an isolated murder as Calabresi's was at odds with Lotta Continua's declared strategy.
Friends and former political allies such as the author Leonardo Sciascia and the Green MP Luigi Manconi have spoken up for Sofri. The prosecution's case rested on the judges accepting Marino's word. After seven years of conflicting judgments the Supreme Court, to general surprise, has decided to do just that.
And now Sofri has returned in Pisa, to the prison which overlooks the university where he made his revolutionary name. He has taken a copy of "Dombey and son" by Charles Dickens and is sharing a cell with Bompressi, with whom he can never have imagined to share such a melancholy intimacy.
Outside the clamour is growing for a presidential pardon, advocated by some on the grounds that the conviction is so dubious, by others on the basis that it was all so long ago.
Inside, neither Sofri, Bompressi nor Pietrostefani, who has returned from France to serve his sentence, will ask for a pardon. To do so could be taken as an admission of guilt.
People often talk of being prisoner of their past, but in Sofri's case the expression is barely a metaphor. A ghost of his past actually tracked him down in the present, jangling jailer's keys. Appropriately for someone intellectually so fastidious, his immediate response has remained his only response, most eloquently rehearsed in the "Memoria" he presented to the judges: "Whoever wanted to make the suicidal and murderous choice of pursuing the armed struggle had to do it by breaking with us. Lotta continua, fortunately for us and for Italy, made the opposite choice. Fanaticism, hatred and violence overwhelmed all bar a few in those years. But the accusation made by Marino is a grotesque distortion of our history."
(Additional reporting Michele Puccioni)