Cesare Battisti, the Murderer Taunting Italy

Cesare Battisti (center) is surrounded by Brazilian police as he arrives at Brasilia airport in March 2007. Evaristo SA / AFP-Getty Images

Alberto Torregiani was 13 years old on Feb. 16, 1979, when his father, Pierluigi, was shot in the head by members of Italy's Armed Proletarians for Communism (PAC) in Milan. The younger Torregiani also took a bullet that day and ended up a paraplegic. Now he spends most days in a wheelchair on Rome's cobblestoned Piazza Navona trying to make sure the world doesn't forget.

Torregiani's protest vigil in front of the Brazilian Embassy started late last year when outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declined to allow the extradition of Cesare Battisti, a member of PAC who was convicted of murdering four Italians in the 1970s, including the elder Torregiani. "You get more by putting your foot down and banging your fists, so that's what we're doing," Alberto tells the supportive crowd gathered around him. "Clearly it's not enough to use diplomacy, so the people's voice must be heard."

Lula's indulgence, penned on Dec. 31, mere hours before he left office, was a blow to many Italians who remember all too well the violence that preceded the "years of lead," when their country was under siege by national terrorists. Further infuriating Italians, rumors that French first lady Carla Bruni, an Italian often at odds with her homeland, had made a personal call to the Brazilian president to ask a "personal favor" by not extraditing Battisti. Bruni's involvement, which she denied after being scolded by Italian politicians, came to light after Bruno Berardi, head of the terrorism and mafia victims' group Domus Civitas, announced it on Italian television. "Bruni told me that she had personally called Lula asking him not to extradite Battisti as a personal favor," Berardi said. "She asked me not to tell the details of her involvement."

Though Battisti routinely denies any involvement in these crimes, the fugitive militant has become a living symbol of one of Italy's darkest eras. And his protection by Brazil—which saw its own days of rage during the 1964–1985 dictatorship—has incensed ordinary Italians and flared into an international incident that is straining relations between the two countries as never before.

Bilateral military and economic accords set to be ratified by the Italian Parliament have been put on hold by Italy until the political climate is more conducive to agreement, says Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who says he is indignant that "a criminal may soon be able to circulate freely on the beautiful Brazilian beaches." Italians have boycotted Brazilian products and travel agencies, and promise to urge customers to boycott Brazil as a tourist destination. Even the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, where Italy enjoys considerable sway, has hinted that the Brazilian candidate for its presidency, José Graziano, may be shunned over the affair. "Italy has a complex history, but the law on extradition of terrorists and criminals is very clear," says Luca Guglielminetti, spokesman for the Italian Association of Victims of Terrorism. "The return of Cesare Battisti is more than a symbolic gesture. It is a point of law. Not returning him is a slap in the face."

It's little wonder. For the better part of three decades, Battisti has topped Italy's shortlist of outlaws at large. Tried in absentia in 1993 and found guilty on four separate counts of murder in the 1970s, the former PAC operative escaped from an Italian jail in 1981 and has been on the lam ever since. Battisti has lived a mostly comfortable exile in Mexico, France, and finally Brazil. Following a brief stint in Mexico after his prison break, he moved to France, where he lived freely under the Mitterrand Doctrine, which sheltered Italian leftist rebels in France who were not involved in "bloody terrorism" and could show they had "broken links" with their terrorist groups. He reinvented himself as a crime novelist, penning well-received books about terrorist activities—one, Buena Onda (Good Vibe), even fictionalizes his involvement in the four murders he was convicted of committing. When the Mitterrand Doctrine expired in 2002, and when France later agreed to ship him back to Italy, Battisti fled to Brazil. He is currently behind bars, but whether he stays there or walks is still an open question.

Battisti was arrested by Brazilian federal police in 2007, but released two years later when the Brazilian justice minister, headed by left-wing Workers' Party loyalist and longtime Lula ally Tarso Genro, granted Battisti political asylum on the basis of his petition of "political persecution." The case ended up in the Brazilian supreme court, where it quickly hit a legal quagmire. While the high court voted to withdraw Battisti's asylum in 2009, putting him back in prison in Brasília and theoretically clearing the way for extradition, it also ruled to leave the final word to Lula. Rome, sensing an opening, stepped up the pressure, but after sitting on the case for months, Lula finally demurred, opting to keep Battisti on Brazilian soil.

Some attributed the jolting move to Lula's intoxicating 87 percent approval rating, which supposedly fueled his determination—or "megalomania," according to opposition leader Sergio Guerra—to stand up to pushy First World powers. He might also have been swayed by Battisti's formidable international defense lobby, which bombarded the Brazilian media with odes to the Italian fugitive's innocence and claims of a right-wing conspiracy against him. Or it might have been simply the call of Lula's woolly past as a union leader and leftist firebrand, obliged by circumstances to govern as a pragmatist and now suddenly free again to channel his days at the barricades.

The Brazilian supreme court will have another crack at the case when the full bench convenes in February. But in many ways the damage has been done. Last week Italian President Giorgio Napolitano wrote a letter to Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, underscoring what he called Italy's "disappointment and bitterness" over the decision to protect the convicted murderer. Italy's Foreign Ministry calls reversing Lula's decision a "moral duty" and promises to take the issue all the way to the International Court of Justice in The Hague if necessary.

And now the European Parliament in Strasbourg has jumped into the fray, unanimously approving a motion to back Italy's bid to bring Battisti back to Italy, even while admitting it has no real authority on what is seen as a bilateral issue between the two nations. Maurizio Massari, spokesman for Foreign Minister Frattini, says returning Battisti is not about politics but justice. "A person who committed common crimes—four murders no less—must be returned to pay for his crime in the country where the crimes were committed," he says. "We want him back in an Italian prison for a sense of justice for the families and for our country."

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for NEWSWEEK since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel magazine, and Frommer's.

A longtime correspondent for NEWSWEEK, Mac Margolis has traveled extensively in Brazil and Latin America. He has contributed to The Economist, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor, and is the author of The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.

This story originally appeared on The Daily Beast.