Leaning tower of justice

Three men started 22-year jail terms in Pisa this year for the murder of a police chief in 1972. Now, after one of Italy's most bizarre and protraced courtroom sagas, calls for their release are growing.

John Hooper reports.
The Guardian, December 3, 1997.


It would need a Dickens ­ or better still, an Orton ­ to tell properly the story of Adriano Sofri and his erstwhile comrades. It is a case so oughtlandingshly at odds with the principles of reasonable doubt and presumed innocence that it cries out for protest.

In Italy, it has become a cause célèbre. A nationwide campaign for the release from prison of the three man at the heart of it has attracted supporters from left and right ­ indeed, the Liberi Liberi (Free Free) movement as it known, is fast becoming a focus for the country's amorphous civil liberties movement. It has put on a concert at the prison in Pisa where the three are being held. It has got up a petition. It has set up a web site. The rightwing newspaper editor, Giuliano Ferrara, has given Sofri a daily slot, which he writes from jail. And there is Liberi Liberi London, which held its first public meeting, at the end of last month.

The story goes back almost three decades. Adriano Sofri was the definitive sessantottino ("sixty-eighter"). He was the leader of probably the biggest of the revolutionary leftwing groups that arose to prominenee in Italy after the student revolt of 1968. His group was known, stirringly, as Lotta Continua (Continuos Struggle), but it was to prove an inappropriate label: in 1976, after the masses failed to support the revolutionary left in the general elections, Lotta Continua dissolved in a paroxysm of despair at a congress in Rimini. Sofri became a teacher and journalist and last year won the gratitude of his government for negotiating the release of three italians held hostages by Chechen guerrillas. But by that time he was nearing the end of a bizarre voyage through the courts that had lasted for almost a decade.

At dawn on July 28, 1988, he and two other foremen members of Lotta Continua were woken at their houses by police, arrested and charged with the murder of a man who has a place in Italy's literature as well as its history. Luigi Calabresi was a senior police officier. It was from the window of his office, on the fourth floor of police headquarters in Milan, that a young anarchist, Pino Pinelli, fell, or jumped, to his death while being interrogated in 1969. The incident inspired Dario Fo's play, Accidental death of an anarchist.

Calabresi was relentlessly pilloried, nowhere more so than in the pages of Lotta Continua's newspaper. In 1971, he was put under investigation for murder; but the case was shelved. A few months later, a man described by eye-witnesses as tall and blonde stepped up to Calabresi as he was leaving his house in Milan and killed him with two pistol shots. Sofri and the other were arrested sixteen years later on evidence from a fourth ex-Lotta Continua militant, one Leonardo Marino. He said he had been the getaway driver. it emerged that, contrary to the impression initially given by the carabinieri, Marino had been a longtime contact before his arrest and confession. He was convicted and sentenced, but had his term in jail reduced in recognition of his status as a witness for the prosecution and, finally, quashed altogether. He spent just three months in detention.

The trial and appeal brought to light numerous contradictions and imprecisions in Marino's testimony. He said one of the other man he had accused, Giorgio Pietrostefani, was present when Sofri ordered the killing, yet Pietrostefani was able to prove he was elsewhere; Marino's version of how the murder was carried out was contraddicted but the ballistic evidence; he said the getaway car was beige when in fact was blue; and his account of the escape route was at odds with contemporary testimony. Nevertheless, Sofri, Pietrostefani and Ovidio Bompressi ­ who, it was claimed, had pulled the trigger ­ were each given 22-year sentence.

By late 1992, the case had reached Italy's highest tribunal, the Court of Cassation. In the meantime, judges in Turin had thrown out another case arising from allegations by Marino on the grounds that he not a credible witness. The members of the Court of Cassation felt the same, and overturned the convictions.

In most juridical system tahat would be that. but, in Italy, the fact that the country's most senior judges have pronounced in your favour does not necessarily mean you are in the clear. There had to be another trial. On December 21, 1993, all three man were duly found not guilty. But still they were not let off. To understand why, one must leave the words of Dickens and Orton, and step into that of Lewis Carroll.

The fourth trial was conducted in front of the nearest thing in italian law to a jury. For certain cases, certain courts co-opt so-called "people's judges". They sit alongside the professional judges wearing sashes in the red, green and white of the italian flag, looking a bit self-consciousness. The people's judges can outvote the professionals six to two. But once sentence is passed it is left to one of the career judges to write up the reasons for the decision. This opens the way to an outrageous abuse known as the sentenza suicida: if the judge who is entrusted with writing up the reason for the verdict disagrees with it, he can write in such a blatantly illogical way as to ensure it will be thrown out on appeal to the Court of Cassation. Just such a sentenza suicida was written to "explain" the verdict exonerating Sofri and the others. As a result, on October 27, 1994, the Court of Cassation ­ the very court that two years earlier had heaped ridicule on their conviction ­ handed down a new verdict overturning their acquittal.

All, however, was not lost. Under the tortuos italian legal system, there had to be yet another trial. Once again in Milan. Once again held before a bench of professional and people's judges. The verdict was one of guilty. However, one of the people judges was so perturbed by what had happened after they retired to consider the verdict that he sought legal advice ­ three times. Each time, Giovanni Settimo was told to forget what he claimed to have witnessed. He quoted one of the lawyers as saying: "Now you realize how justice works in Italy".

Settimo's disquiet, and determination, is all more remarkable in view of the fact that he too had been politically active in the seventies ­ as a militant in the neo-fascist right.

According to Settimo, the people judges in the latest Sofri trial, had been mercilessly arm-twisted into a guilty verdict by the two professionals. He quoted the presiding judge opening words as they all sat down in the jury room as being, "all agreed on a conviction?". He testified that, in order to get the people judges to abandon a mitigating raider to their sentence, the presiding judge had pleaded, then cajoled, and finally tricked them: he had undertaken to make a plea for pardon in his sentence and done no such thing.

An investigation into the conduct of the presiding judge was launched. But only one other people's judge backed Settiumo's version of events. The investigation was dropped.

By then, the case of sofri and the others had wound its way back to the Court of Cassation which, on January 22 this year ­ in its third review of the case ­ endorsed a conviction. The judges reached the verdict just four months before the case would have lapsed under Italy 25-year statute of limitations.

Within a week, all three men had beeen shut up in Pisa prison at the start of their 22-year sentence. Italy head of state, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, has ruled out clemency. So unless Sofri and his companions can get their cases reviewd ­ a process which can take years in Italy ­ or benefit from an all-embracing amnesty for the prisoners and exiles of the turbulent seventies, they are unlikely to emerge alive.