SAO PAULO, Brazil – Accused of killings in his native Italy, militant 1970s leftist Cesare Battisti reinvented himself in France as a celebrated writer of police thrillers. But Paris got tougher on suspected terrorists and Battisti went on the run again in 2004, disappearing, apparently with the help of a French "support committee."
Disappearing, that is, until Sunday, when police tracking a woman bringing Battisti money found the fugitive novelist near Brazil's famed Copacabana Beach.
An extradition request was immediately sent to Brazil's Supreme Court, which could send him back to Italy, said a spokesman for Brazilian federal police, Bruno Ramos.
Battisti "will try to ensure his rights," said his Paris lawyer, Eric Turcon.
Like many leftists wanted for their roles in a tumultuous period of bombings and assassinations in Italy in the 1970s, Battisti, who escaped from an Italian prison in 1981, took refuge in France in the 1990s. He took advantage of a tacit policy, developed under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, allowing Italian militants who took refuge in France the right to remain if they renounced their violent ways.
France was proud of its tradition as a haven for political refugees and disapproved of Italy's use of mass arrests and informants to combat extremists. Some in France believed that Italian militants could not get fair trials at home.
Battisti was a member of Armed Proletarians for Communism, a group founded in 1977 that targeted mostly prisons and people who were believed to cooperate with law enforcement. He was accused of the slaying of a prison guard and of butcher Lino Sabbadin, who was slain in Milan on Feb. 16, 1979. Sabbadin had shot and killed a robber who had broken into his store months earlier.
Fleeing Italy and proclaiming his innocence, Battisti lived in France for more than a decade, gaining prominence by writing about two dozen books, including many dark thrillers.
He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison in Italy in 1990 for the slayings of the prison guard and Sabbadin.
He reiterated his claim of innocence of the killings in a book published in France a year ago.
"I am guilty, as I have often said, of having participated in an armed group with a subversive aim and of having carried weapons. But I never shot anyone," he wrote in "Ma Cavale" ("My Escape").
Mitterrand's legacy left France vulnerable to criticism that it wasn't doing enough to combat terrorism. As times changed, France adjusted its policy of sheltering Italians, as well as Basque militants accused of attacks in Spain.
In January 2003, Italian authorities formally asked France to extradite Battisti. Two months before then-Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin was able to sign an extradition decree in October 2004, Battisti disappeared again, failing to show up for a weekly check-in with judicial officials.
Law enforcement officials went on the hunt for him, while a support committee was formed to back his bid to remain in France. Artists and intellectuals rallied around him, including novelist Fred Vargas and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.
It was a young woman from the support committee, assigned to bring the fugitive money, who proved to be his undoing. Acting on a tip from Italian police, the French watched the woman for a month, tracking her to the Rio de Janeiro hotel where Battisti was found, French police officials said.
"Brazilian police had been following him for several months after receiving information from Interpol (the international police agency) in Paris and Rome," Ramos said of Battisti.
It was not immediately clear whether the woman was also arrested Sunday. She was not identified by name or nationality.
In Rome, Italian Premier Romano Prodi telephoned to congratulate Interior Minister Giuliano Amato for the "brilliant operation." Justice Minister Clemente Mastella said he hoped that Battisti would quickly be extradited to Italy, the ANSA and Apcom agencies reported.
Battisti is also accused of being an accomplice to the slayings of a police officer and jeweler Luigi Torregiani. Torregiani was killed in a gun battle in Milan on the same day Sabbadin, the butcher, was killed.
Torregiani had also shot and killed a robber who had broken into his store months earlier.
Alberto Torregiani, the jeweler's son, said Battisti needed to pay "until the end and stay in prison," according to the ANSA agency.
"This would show that justice can be achieved even after 30 years, when it is pursued with determination," said Torregiani, who was wounded and paralyzed by one of his father's bullets in the attack.