Over the last half century numerous political exiles from around the world waging noble battles for human rights and democracy found a safe haven in Europe. Some notable examples are Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress compatriots who escaped the brutal South African apartheid government. Others include political opponents of the ruthless Pinochet regime in Chile.
On a lower profile but in significant numbers were the thousands of young American men who found refuge from prosecution for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
At the same time some countries offered asylum to violent European left-wing revolutionary groups facing murder charges for cold blood killings of innocent judges, policeman and civilians in a neighbouring country. As hard as it might be to believe today France was one of those countries. It has sheltered for four decades as many as 200 Italian Red Brigade members and other violent revolutionary groups from Italy who pursued their own version of the Maoist-inspired Cultural Revolution that gutted China.
Faced with an intense political campaign led by the left-wing French media, as well as intellectuals, actors, writers and other leading culture celebrities, former French President Francois Mitterrand issued in the early 1980s a doctrine blocking the extradition of the violent Italian extremists – many of who escaped while appealing their convictions. Subsequent French governments including the one led by Nicholas Sarkozy supported the Mitterand doctrine.
Forty years later and after a brutal terrorism scourge has left hundreds of innocent French people dead in recent years you might think the cabal of French “intelligentsia” would have second thoughts about just how righteous their cause was.
Think again. The sad reality is that numerous celebrities from the French culture world including Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Georges Didi-Huberman, Fred Vargas, Annie Ernaux, Jean-Luc Godard and others have doubled down and continue to lionize the exiled Red Brigade members living in France. Moreover they are hard at work trying to block a renewed effort led by the current Italian government to extradite seven Italians either wanted or convicted for murder but who have been protected by the French legal system.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, widely recognized as the saviour of the euro when as head of the European Central Bank he said he would “do whatever it takes” to save the faltering single currency, has put his credibility on the line on the extradition issue. Soon after being approved in December to lead an Italian unity government Draghi raised the extradition issue with French President Emmanuel Macron.
A decade ago the European Union member states adopted the European Arrest Warrant, which is now a cornerstone of the Lisbon Treaty pillar on justice and home affairs. The breakthrough was designed to prevent criminals from escaping justice by slipping across borders and manipulating byzantine and/or conflicting EU member state legal systems.
However in order to get the European Arrest Warrant legislation across the line it did not include a retroactive clause. Thus it does not automatically apply to the long-standing murder charges against the Red Brigade and other violent left-wing extremists wanted in Italy, where there is no statute of limitations for murder. Draghi has emphasized that for many of his compatriots, especially spouses, children and other victim family members, the crimes of the Red Brigade members are an “open wound” that have been compounded by political asylum in France.
The Italian prime minister has had some initial success as the French courts began the extradition process at the end of April by issuing arrest warrants that included Red Brigade members and others wanted for murder. However five of the seven members who appeared before the French tribunal were promptly released on personal recognizance. Several others did not show up citing concerns about the corona virus. All are due to appear again in June before a French court when the process will continue.
Where Draghi has not made headway, quite literally, is convincing many in the left-wing French media and cultural world that it is time to take off the blinders and recognize the folly of their cause. In a recent letter published in the French newspaper La Liberation the French supporters of the exiled Red Brigade insisted the Italian government and the victim’s family members were a seeking a “political trophy” by demanding extradition.
Instead the French supporters claim the Italian violent terror group members should be granted amnesty. In media interviews they insist the former Red Brigade members have long forsaken violence, raised families and have been making a positive contribution to French society.
As for the Red Brigade members and others Italian 1970s extremists living in France for the past four decades: do they have regrets or have they repented? Absolutely not if the words of Marina Petrella, sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering an Italian policeman but who escaped to France while waiting appeal, are any indication.
“I do not want to talk about it,” said Petrella when asked in early May by journalists if she has repented. “I will never talk about it.” She added that she has suffered enough being forced to live outside Italy for 30 years.
Cohorts of Petrella wanted in Italy have given interviews over the years insisting they were foot soldiers in a revolutionary political war and that cause justified violence, including killing policemen, lawyers, politicians and judges.
But for people like Maurizio Campagna, who was 18 years old when his brother, an Italian policeman, was killed in cold blood, there is nothing political about his long-running campaign to force the Red Brigade members to face justice. For Campagna as well as Giovanni Bachelet, who was 25 when his father – a professor of law – was gunned down on the stairs outside the University of Sapienza faculty building in Rome, it is simply about closure.
“This is not about hate or revenge,” Bachelet told the Italian newspaper La Republica. “This is not going to bring back my father or wipe away the pain and sadness.
“Many of the Red Brigade members have already paid their debt to society and now it is time for these fugitives to do the same,” Bachelet added.
Unfortunately for Campagna, Bachelet and others the wait will likely be long. Legal experts predict the extradition process in France, if successful could take at least two or three years. And that does not include a likely appeal before the European Court of Human Rights, which could drag on for a few more years.