Italian justice faces another assault from pen of Dario Fo

Hege Duckert
Sunday Telegraph, Feb 8, 1998

THE Nobel laureate, Dario Fo, has taken centre stage in a nationwide campaign to free three Italian political activists jailed for murder on charges related to his award-winning play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Fo has re-emerged as a prominent figure on the Left of Italy's political spectrum since winning the Nobel prize for literature last year. He is using his new-found prominence to add his voice to a growing campaign to win the release of the three activists, who are each serving 22 years for murdering a Milan police inspector.

The officer, Luigi Calabresi, was widely suspected of being involved in the "accidental" death of a railway worker who fell from a third-floor window in a police interrogation room. The man was being questioned about his alleged involvement in a bomb attack in central Milan, which killed 16 people and injured 88.

The death of the railway worker became a cause célèbre for Italian Left-wing activists, and provided the inspiration for Fo to write the political drama that brought him worldwide fame. Fo has added his name to the list of prominent Italians, including the writer Umberto Eco and the leader of the Green Party, Luigi Manconi, who are campaigning for a retrial. They argue that there has been a miscarriage of justice.

Judges in Milan will decide later this month whether to approve a new trial on the basis of evidence provided since the activists were convicted last year of the Calabresi murder. "The court has turned this case into a farce," said Fo at his home in Florence. "The investigation was a sham." As part of his campaign, he is preparing to stage a new play based on the trial and conviction of the three activists. A key figure in Fo's campaign is Adriano Sofri, 55, a charismatic revolutionary leader of a group called Lotta Continua, "On with the struggle", and editor of the organisation's newspaper.

Sofri organised the original campaign to make a martyr out of the anarchist railway worker. Sofri accused Calabresi of murder, and Calabresi sued Sofri for libel. Three years later, on a morning in May 1972, Calabresi was shot dead as he climbed into his car to go to work. Sofri wrote that the murder "gives the exploited a sense of justice". Although there were several witnesses to the killing, no one was charged with the shooting at the time. Sofri was finally arrested in 1988 after the Italian authorities detained a former Left-wing activist in connection with a bank robbery in Milan. After three weeks in custody, the activist surprised detectives by claiming to have driven the car carrying Calabresi's assassins. Apart from implicating Sofri, who he alleged ordered the killing, the robbery suspect accused two other prominent Left-wingers, Giorgio Pietrostefani and Ovidio Bompressi. The three were later convicted - after a marathon of seven court cases - of murdering Calabresi. They were jailed in January 1996. The convictions were secured after prosecutors took advantage of legislation designed for cases involving the Mafia. This allows a conviction to be secured on the basis of evidence provided by a pentito, a former member of an illegal group who agrees to collaborate with the police.

Sofri, 55, says the three prisoners will stage a hunger strike if the case is not reopened. "Not because we wish to die, but because we cannot accept staying here," he said when interviewed recently in his cell at Don Bosco prison in Pisa. He says he would also refuse a pardon if one was offered on the basis that he does not want to be pardoned for a crime he did not commit. Commentators in the Italian media claim that the sentences are the political Right's vengeance on the political Left of the Seventies.

After the arrests last year, more than 10,000 people gathered outside the prison, protesting that the three accused were innocent. Dario Fo says his new play will be in a similar form as Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a mixture of absurd comedy and Greek tragedy. With his actress wife, Franca Rame, and a few other actors, he has already held open performances in Milan and Florence, followed by a debate with the audience. Fo has dedicated the Nobel prize money of about £600,000 to the fight for Sofri and his two friends. The playwright has also conducted his own investigation, interviewing witnesses and checking technical details. The play features courtroom scenes familiar to Italians through the media. All the case's chief players will be there on stage, some of them in the form of wooden figures. Fo is confident his efforts will succeed. "I hope the play will make a new generation aware of the gross injustice that has been done," he said.