France Frees Sick Italian Terrorist

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People hold portraits of a former member of Italy's disbanded Red Brigades group Marina Petrella

No matter how French officials ultimately resolve the problem posed by Marina Petrella, it's certain to outrage someone. Sought by Italy for her 1992 conviction on charges of murder and kidnapping, the former Red Brigades terrorist was ordered free on bail by a French appeals court Tuesday over concerns about Petrella's perilous health. But with a government order for Petrella's extradition to Rome still pending, French authorities now face a harrowing decision: whether to hand over a convicted killer likely to die if her imprisonment continues; or release a woman with an irreproachable record during her 15 years in France, and thereby spark the fury of Italian officials and the families of her victims who still demand justice.

The French appeals court ruling ordered Petrella free on bail at the request of prosecutors and government officials who'd previously taken a harder stand on her case. Their change of heart is perhaps understandable: since her arrest and incarceration a year ago, Petrella, 54, has fallen into a deep depression that doctors say has "caused her to lose the will to live". As a result, Petrella has largely been unable to eat, and has shed 20 percent of her body weight, now just 86 lbs. (39 kg). The gravity of her condition motivated French justice officials to seek Petrella's release on bail.

The new twist in Petrella's case is certain to raise suspicion in Rome that French officials are reverting to old habits in dealing with Italian fugitives, a source of tension for two decades. There's little disagreement over Petrella's acts as a member of the extreme-left Red Brigades, which battled Italian governments in the 1970s and 1980s in a campaign of assassination, kidnapping, and terror. In 1992 a Rome court convicted Petrella in absentia for her role in the 1981 murder of a police inspector and the kidnapping of a judge. The following year, Petrella fled to France and an open-ended deal proposed in 1985 by French President François Mitterrand: amnesty for Red Brigades members who gave up their battle in Italy to lead law-abiding lives in France. So it was that Petrella set up house near Paris in 1993, raising her two daughters and working as a social services employee.

But pressure and protest from Italy led ruling French conservatives to scrap the Mitterrand amnesty in 2002, thus leaving Petrella and scores of other repented Red Brigades militants in France vulnerable to arrest under outstanding Italian warrants. That's precisely what happened to Petrella in August, 2007 following a routine police road check; she's been in prison ever since.

That fate provoked protest from French leftists and intellectuals who believe France had unilaterally and unfairly changed the rules on rehabilitated radicals. In recent weeks appeals for special consideration for Petrella have struck considerably close to home for French President Nicolas Sarkozy — and may have been partially responsible in altering the position of justice officials towards Petrella's case. In June, Sarkozy's Italian-born wife Carla Bruni told the daily Libération that Petrella "is ill, and should be cared for the way any human should. And prison isn't the ideal place for that". The following month, Bruni's older sister, actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, visited Petrella in prison and expressed deep concern for "someone who is seriously ill". Tedeschi — who in 1995 played the harrowing role of a jailed Red Brigades terrorist — likened the embrace of extremist ideology to the descent into drug addiction, suggesting redemption from both is possible.

Given the gravity of Petrella's condition and the publicity her case has generated, Sarkozy wrote Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi in July, promising to deliver Petrella, but asking that "a measure of clemency be considered for her, as soon as possible", given her flawless behavior since coming to France. Days later, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano ruled out any quick pardons for Petrella, citing her "numerous and extremely serious terrorist crimes". That's a view supported by the outraged Italians who were injured or lost loved ones in Red Brigades attacks and want to see justice finally served.