This is the absurd story of an Italian citizen, Giuseppe Lo Porto, 86 years-old, who ended up in the wheels of an infernal legal mechanism; he was extradited within two weeks to the United States, following his arrest on May 7th, 2012 by the Carabinieri of Pieve di Cadore, following an extradition decree which he was never notified of. The previous day, Lo Porto, as an Italian citizen, had even voted in the municipal elections of San Vito di Cadore. Today he is in an Alabama prison and is serving three life sentences as an innocent man. Victim of an unjust trial and of a legal system gone wrong? Is it an isolated case?
No. In Italy, the number of victims of wrongful imprisonment currently stands at 1003, as shown by the data presented by the Union of Criminal Chambers in Padua on opening day of the judicial year at a conference dedicated to legal errors. In Veneto alone, 22 cases of false imprisonment were recorded in 2018.
A former Italian entrepreneur, who also served the United States government as an official interpreter as well as authoring a book criticising the American justice system, is at the centre of one of the most controversial cases of breaches of justice. Pino Lo Porto is 86 years-old and suffers from a serious heart disorder; since 1996 he has been the protagonist of a trial that Kafka himself would baulk at. It all revolves around an unsubstantiated accusation of rape that has led him, as an Italian citizen, to be extradited to the United States and given three life sentences, which he is currently serving, again as an Italian citizen extradited to the United States, in an Alabama prison. He is in regular contact with his niece who lives in Canada, only through the regular postal service. Lo Porto has always declared himself innocent of the accusations made by his ex-wife; during their divorce proceedings, she successfully laid claim to his fortune.
His lawyer, Luciano Faraon, who has worked on the case from the very beginning, reveals all the ins and outs to us, after having filed a new urgent appeal to the Italian Council of State on 7th February; it includes a letter in which Lo Porto asks for President Trump to intervene. In the meantime, the Lazio Regional Administrative Court has also ordered the Ministry of Justice to pay the legal costs of the dispute, but the latter (the Ministry has been aware of the case since the beginning because of the numerous appeals made over the years) has so far refused to comply with the request, demanding an ad hoc power of attorney signed by Lo Porto. Limited to the use of the ordinary postal service, not to mention the difficulties in dealing with bureaucratic issue by an elderly sick man, this power of attorney only arrived a few days ago.
“I wonder if this means that now,” says Faraon, “the Ministry will really deal with this case, bringing Lo Porto back to Italy and letting him live at least one day as a free man. Today he is in prison because of an abuse of the rules on extradition with the complicity of our judicial system. The historical reality of the facts is that there have been errors in administrative law and omissions of due process; not only does the only medical examination carried out on the youngest daughter of his ex-wife show that there was no rape, but the various trial documents show clearly that everything was invented by his ex-wife during the divorce. In this way, at the time of the events in question, she got her hands on more than a million dollars. Not only is this a case of a miscarriage of justice, but there is a terrible suspicion that there is a greater political issue at stake here.
But let’s go back to the beginning of the story.
Giuseppe Lo Porto was born in Libya in 1933, as an Italian citizen with his official residence in the Cortina district of Pieve di Cadore. He went to the USA as an adult to follow the American dream, one that he realised – he became a wealthy businessman and obtained US citizenship after marrying an American divorcee who had two children. He had to renounce his claim to Italian citizenship due to the standing norms barring dual citizenship at the time.
“When he had amassed a reasonable fortune,” explain Faraon, “she requested a divorce and, at the same time, reported him for sexual abuse against her youngest daughter. He was unable to obtain an independent medical evaluation, and Lo Porto ended up in jail, before being released on bail. In the meantime, mainly due to the divorce proceedings, his business, which had been the guarantor of his bail, went bankrupt. Lo Porto decided to return to Italy. And this is where his legal odyssey began. Because he wrote a tell-all book condemning the cruel injustices of the American legal system.”
And perhaps this was Lo Porto’s first real “mistake”, because that book “L’Altra Faccia dell’America: Una Vera Storia” – written in Italian with a title that can be translated as “The Other Face of America, A True Story” – was read by the Attorney General of Baldwin County, David Whetstone, who reexamined the case and confirmed the 28 charges against Lo Porto, pressing Italy to extradite him. Giuseppe Lo Porto sought refuge in Holland. The extradition requests from the United States reached the relevant justice departments in the Netherlands, leading to his being tried for extradition.
“What a surprise to learn that the Dutch court of Middleburg rejected the extradition request because they held it to be ungrounded in law; among the reasons the Dutch magistrates gave was that there was a lack of proof to sustain the minor’s claims of abuse. In addition, the US courts apparently did not observe norms of questioning child witnesses in cases of sexual violence, and despite being given time, no supplementary evidence was included in the extradition request besides witness statements from Kathrin (his ex-wife’s daughter).”
From the documents, it also emerges that the ex-wife could have been in a position to exert certain pressures on the district attorney. “But,” says Faraon, “all objections on this issue were rejected by the court.” In the meantime, Lo Porto was released again, but only for a short time. It was the end of August 2011 and, because of his deteriorating health conditions, Lo Porto was hospitalised at the Hospital of Mirano in Venice, where he took the decision to request Italian citizenship, which was granted on May 12th, 2006.
“I have never been anti-American,”writesLo Porto in his book. “I’m just someone who is informed, and I’m writing this book to document the inconsistencies in what I thought to be a great democracy.”
“On the 7th May 2012, the Carabinieri of Pieve di Cadore obeyed the orders of decree R. EP 584 2005 SR of 26.6.2006, arresting Giuseppe Lo Porto and taking him to the Belluno jail, even though they were fully aware that this arrest warrant had been issued when Giuseppe Lo Porto was an Italian citizen. “That’s not all,” continues Faraon. “The errors that occurred in the criminal justice system led to the unfair detention of Lo Porto as an Italian citizen on the false assumption that he was a U.S. citizen; so much so that the FBI cited a U.S. passport on the extradition decree, despite the fact that he was no longer an American citizen as stated in the documents submitted. Another paradox for the dignity of our justice system: the Venice Court of Appeal, with sentence no. 15/2005 granted the extradition request, judging Lo Porto as an American citizen and not an Italian one. So I’m applying for refugee status to be recognised for Lo Porto in the Venice-Marghera police district, but they so far have refused to accept the claim ‘because they are only for foreigners’.”
Here we should point out that, amongst the other accusations in Lo Porto’s weighty file, is how he was tried in absentia for Bail Jumping, something that is not recognised as a crime in Italy, thereby violating the “specialty principle” of extradition norms.
We ask Faraon if he believes there was pressure put on the Italian government to hand Lo Porto over.
If we swap the word “pressure” for “diplomatic bartering” between the two governments , the answer cannot but be yes. Italy has been obsequious towards the USA in the face of the extradition request, and the officials acted against the interests of Lo Porto and his defence, giving us false information to prevent us from taking appropriate action to defend an innocent man. Lo Porto was extradited within two weeks of Washington’s request; does that seem possible to you? The United States almost always demands and obtains extraditions from subordinate governments, and rejects or even ignores the extradition requests of these same governments, especially if the cases are in the public eye, or if observance of the treaties could appear as a sign of weakness of the world’s greatest power.” Just think back to what happened in the Amanda Knox case.
Faraon points out a passage in the documents pertaining to the proceedings, and he accuses, amongst others, the ministerial official Eugenio Selvaggi of “not only falsely declaring that he was no longer responsible for the proceedings (he was at the time of the facts), but also of being neglectful in his role, and obstructing justice for the defendant, by stating, for example, shortly before the extradition, that no extradition process was in progress. Not only that, the US court documents indicate that $5,000 was paid to Selvaggi. Nothing has been done by the Italian district attorneys to ascertain whether this is true or not!
In a memoir written some time ago by Lo Porto, we read, “I realised that the sentence had already been decided, and that the trial would only be a farce to give some semblance of legality to all the illegalities I had suffered. Not because the prosecution had overwhelming evidence, but because of the strong political influence of my ex-wife, my sentence would have been a nice flag to fly in the election campaign the following November, when it would be time to re-elect judges and district attorneys; add to that the aggravating circumstance that I was born in Libya of Sicilian parents.”
From Canada, his niece Nadia Bellini tells us, “My uncle is innocent. In prison he has been plagued by depression, but he uses the immense love he feels for his nieces (twins, me and my sister) to try to move forward, and he still dreams of the day when he can hug us as a free man.
I call him my Prince Hero, and I always tell him that I am his lifeblood, the walking staff keeping him upright. I try to help him in any way I can, sending him money, printing documents that he needs, doing some research, contacting his lawyer, writing him letters of hope, comfort, strength and courage. I have never managed to summon the strength to visit him because it would break my heart to see him in those conditions. It would break his heart too. Too painful for both of us. I hope that one day his plight will end, thanks to many people who together will help him win the battle of his life.”
The journalist Piero Laporta has written a great deal about this case over the years, and in the pages of La Verità in December, he railed against the extraordinary rendition to the USA of this Italian citizen in a precarious state of health.
GIANDOMENICO CAIAZZA, CHAIRMAN OF THE UNION OF CRIMINAL CHAMBERS, A CRIMINAL LAWYERS ASSOCIATION
“Unfair detention and excessively long trials: these are the anomalies of our judicial system that must be dealt with. Our views of sentencing needs to be updated.”
“As of September 30, 2018, almost 600,000 individual proceedings and 27,000 collective court proceedings were pending in Italy. The figure was revealed by the President of the Court of Turin, Massimo Terzi, and is shocking, because it means that every year we have at least 150,000 defendants who wait at least 4 years from their arrest before being acquitted in the end of the first degree trial (acquitted, not with the accusation falling under the statute of limitations). That’s 45% of cases; 1,500,000 every 10 years. Since the Code of Criminal Procedure was implemented thirty years ago, we have tried and acquitted almost 5 million defendants in the first degree after an average of 4.5 years. That is some figure, but that’s not all: we cannot remain indifferent to these numbers, they should make us reflect on how incapable our judicial system is of providing a rapid response to a legitimate demand for justice. The ease with which precautionary custodial sentences are applied is unacceptable today. There is an abuse of these precautionary measure in anticipation of sentencing, in a legal and judicial culture that does not give enough consideration to the removal of an individual’s personal freedom. Unfair trials are also those that last an unreasonable amount of time, but to take this issue into serious consideration we require alternative rites, that is to say, that less accusations should arrive at a court trial. We need to increase negotiated solution to trials, we need to update our ideas of sentencing immediately, reducing the numbers of people incarcerated. At the moment we are working on this issue with the National Association of Magistrates, who know that the real problems are the following: increasing fast-track trials and a radical rethinking of the preliminary hearing system which today just does not work. 97% of indictments are sent to trial, a ridiculous figure. We need to go back to the drawing board in this country which has compulsory criminal prosecution, and where the trials last three times as long as the European average.” And on the statute of limitations, Caiazza adds: “We think of the statute of limitations as a pathology, but it is the length of trials which are pathological, it’s a falsifying of reality, and it represents a right that everyone should have not to be subjected to a criminal process for time everlasting.”