dal WALL STREET JOURNAL, 7 marzo 2002



Influential Italian Columnist
Is Also Convicted Cop-Killer



PISA, Italy -- Author and columnist Adriano Sofri cannot browse the Web or respond to e-mails. He can use the telephone only 10 minutes a week. And he can conduct interviews only in the Pisa prison visitors' room, above whose barred window is stapled a poster of the leaning tower that he may never see again.

That's because Mr. Sofri, 59, is a convicted cop-killer. And yet to many Italians, including some of the nation's leading political and literary figures, he's also a beacon of reason. They see Mr. Sofri, who describes himself as a kidnapping victim, as a martyr to Italy's maddeningly complex and often arbitrary justice system.

It's not a universal view. Italian police officers in particular see as grotesque that a convicted criminal has gained such influence. But Mr. Sofri, once a militant member of the far-left Lotta Continua group, now counts vocal supporters across the nation's political spectrum. Almost every day, couriers come to the prison to collect his manuscripts: He writes both a regular page-one commentary for la Repubblica, the left-leaning daily viscerally opposed to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and a column for Panorama, a newsweekly owned by the conservative media mogul.

Mr. Sofri's articles usually note that they were written from captivity. One recent column decried the treatment of al Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- and compared their fate, and Mr. Sofri's own, with that of American poet Ezra Pound, who was incarcerated in an open-air cage near this jail in 1945 for making pro-Nazi broadcasts during the war.

On the eve of last May's general elections, he wrote a column urging Italians to finally take their politics seriously and go out to vote -- noting that as a convicted murderer, he himself is deprived of the right. As it happens, voter turnout was unexpectedly high. Mr. Sofri's newest crusade takes issue with the near-absence of women in Italian politics, which he calls a scandalous retreat from the achievements of the feminist movement a generation ago.

Prize-Winning Support

Those who embrace Mr. Sofri assert his innocence. Writers like Umberto Eco, author of "The Name of the Rose," have argued it in a torrent of articles. Nobel literature laureate Dario Fo even penned a play about Mr. Sofri's trials. The campaign to free him has spread to Germany and France-where, as in Italy, many 1970s radicals have grown up to become today's cultural and political leaders.

"Sofri is a man of great intelligence who used to be a true extremist," says Giuliano Ferrara, editor of the conservative Il Foglio newspaper and a former cabinet minister who is active in efforts to free Mr. Sofri. "But, despite huge errors, Sofri was always a very clean, very moral person. I am as sure as anyone can be that he didn't do it."

It's an attitude that just irritates police superintendent Oronzo Cosi, the secretary-general of Italy's Siulp police officers' union. "Sofri must be treated like any other citizen," he complains. "This level of attention paid to Sofri by the politicians and by the mass media only hurts the law enforcement agents in their daily work. It's an insult."

The crime in question was the 1972 killing of Luigi Calabresi, head of the political department of Milan police. Mr. Sofri, already a well-known writer, was first connected with it in 1988, when Leonardo Marino, a one-time Lotta Continua militant, went to the police with a startling confession: He and three other Lotta Continua members had been responsible for the shooting. He himself drove the getaway car, and Mr. Sofri was one of those who ordered the killing.

A jury convicted Mr. Sofri at his first trial, though it emerged during the trial that Mr. Marino had been meeting with police for weeks before the official date of his confession (the defense claimed that he was coached on the killing's details) and some independent testimony contradicted Mr. Marino's. One witness saw a woman at the wheel of the getaway car, while others placed the accused shooter in Tuscany at the time of the killing. Mr. Marino changed some details of his testimony through the trials, but maintains the thrust of his accusation.

The verdict ended up being quashed by Italy's supreme court, and a retrial by a jury found all four defendants not guilty. It seemed that Mr. Sofri's troubles were over -- but after a couple of years, which the writer spent reporting from besieged Sarajevo, the supreme court quashed the acquittal, too. More trials followed; in 2000 Mr. Sofri's seventh trial ended with a conviction by Italy's highest appellate court -- a decision that cannot be reversed. Mr. Sofri's only way out is a presidential pardon or an amnesty law.

No Deal

Over the years, Mr. Sofri has rejected possible deals with the prosecution, and has refused to ask for a pardon. He now describes himself as acting like a "cretin" when he believed that he could not end up in jail. (Supporters have applied for a pardon for him, but were turned down after antiglobalization riots last year in Genoa. Italy's justice minister, Roberto Castelli, decided a pardon would send a wrong political message at a time when police were being criticized for manhandling demonstrators.)

Barring extraordinary intervention, Mr. Sofri will stay in prison until he turns 75 in 2017. His accuser, by contrast, is a free man. Mr. Marino has benefited from privileges accorded by Italian law to the pentiti, or turncoats who testify against more important criminals.

Still, no one, including Mr. Sofri, disputes that Mr. Calabresi, the slain policeman, was the target of a high-profile hatred campaign organized by Lotta Continua. The group branded Mr. Calabresi a murderer after a young anarchist "fell" from the policeman's office window during an interrogation; the campaign's slogans included "Calabresi, we know where you live and we'll get you."

Mr. Sofri, who abandoned politics before Lotta Continua dissolved and its militant fringe joined the terrorist Red Brigades, agrees that such campaigning was repugnant. "Morally, there is no doubt that we didn't realize the enormous risk of dehumanizing Calabresi," he says. "But I never thought that someone would actually take seriously the notion of me ordering his killing."

In the dank corridor next to the Pisa jail's visiting room, a volunteer social worker now jokingly calls Mr. Sofri "the prison's real boss." The only university graduate among the 400 inmates, Mr. Sofri has campaigned, often successfully, for improved conditions. "There is no violence by the guards here because I am too much of a scarecrow," he says, dressed in a blue sweater and an Oxford shirt, and carrying an elegant leather notebook.

Every day, the mail brings in numerous letters from aspiring writers who hope that an introduction from Mr. Sofri will help them get in print -- and a review will make the book sell. "It's getting comical," he says. Mr. Sofri himself penned seven books of essays in jail, in addition to reams of political commentary. "I wouldn't have written all this outside," he says. "But here in jail, I have more shamelessness, a sort of incontinence caused by the fact that I'm locked up."

In addition to increasing the volume of Mr. Sofri's writing, imprisonment may increase their influence. Franco Corleone, a former deputy justice minister from 1996 to 2001 who is participating in a chain of week-long hunger strikes organized by Mr. Sofri's supporters this year, says, "It's difficult to criticize someone who's writing from jail -- so a discussion on whether he's right or wrong on some issue is impossible."

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

Updated March 7, 2002