The Case of Adriano Sofri

Carlo Ginzburg

The eruption of youthful insubordination in 1968 seemed to go beyond barriers of language, culture and class. Today, almost thirty years later, one is struck not only by the homogeneity of the movement, but also by the diversity of the traces it left behind in different countries. In Germany, for example, the effects of 1968 (or so it seems to a foreigner) were expressed mainly in people’s private lives and a gulf opened up between generations. In Italy, political and social stability were profoundly shaken. The workers’ struggle for improved conditions of employment, sparked off by the French example, dragged bitterly on throughout the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969. The climax came on 12 December, when a bomb exploded in a Milan branch of the Banca dell’Agricoltura: 16 people were killed, and another died soon afterwards. On the same day, two more bombs exploded in Rome, one in a bank and the other next to the Altare della Patria, but in neither case was anyone hurt. According to the questore (the state functionary in charge of public order), Milanese anarchists were responsible for the bombings.

Many years later, as a result of inquiries conducted by a few courageous magistrates, a very different picture emerged: the bombs had been placed by neo-Nazis, under the protection and at the instigation of the secret services, with the intention of throwing responsibility onto the anarchists, and thus pushing the country to the right. As the title of a pamphlet (which had a powerful effect in Italy) put it, a ‘state massacre’ had taken place.

The official version had already begun to look suspect in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. Pietro Valpreda, a dancer, was ‘identified’ as the man responsible and described as a ‘monster’ by the police and the moderate press. A friend of his, a railwayman and an anarchist, Giuseppe Pinelli, was illegally held for three days in police headquarters in Milan, and during a break in the interrogation fell from a window and died. At an unscheduled news conference held on the same night, the Milan police announced that Pinelli had thrown himself to his death shouting: ‘It’s the end of anarchy.’ First the police presented this as an admission of guilt on Pinelli’s part, then they denied he had ever said it.

Many people saw these events as an attempt to mislead the public; and in an extremely violent press campaign conducted through its own newspaper, the extra-Parliamentary left-wing group Lotta Continua expressed the conviction, widely shared by both the Parliamentary and the extra-Parliamentary Left that Pinelli had ‘been suicided’ during the interrogation; and that the person responsible for his death was the police commissioner Luigi Calabresi. Lotta Continua’s objective was to re-open the inquest into Pinelli’s death (filed away several years later as a case of malore attivo, or ‘active breakdown’ – the resources of Italian legalese are infinite). After much hesitation, Calabresi eventually sued Lotta Continua for libel: but the trial was cut short after a magistrate was challenged by Calabresi’s lawyer (on dubious grounds of prejudice) and never concluded.

On 17 May 1972, Calabresi was assassinated on his doorstep. No one claimed responsibility. Lotta Continua declared that political murder was not an instrument of social liberation, but that it was unable to condemn an act in which the exploited classes recognised ‘their will to justice’.

The hunt for Calabresi’s killers began immediately. On 31 May 1972, three carabinieri were killed in an ambush at Peteano, near Gorizia. A pentito, or supergrass, Marco Pisetta, maintained that both the ambush at Peteano and Calabresi’s death were part of a campaign of subversion by Lotta Continua. A group of officers in the carabinieri supported him in this but were later accused of conspiracy to deceive.

Over the next ten years, explosive devices placed in Italian public squares and railway trains claimed hundreds of victims. In the summer of 1980, 80 people were killed in the station waiting-room at Bologna. On this occasion at least, several members of the secret services were convicted of spreading disinformation about the bombing and who was responsible for it. People who do this don’t just want to conceal the truth: they want to cover up for someone else. Who were the secret services covering for in the summer of 1980, and why?

For the whole of the preceding decade, the Italian Left (including the Communist Party) had lived in fear of a fascist or CIA-engineered coup that would bring in an authoritarian regime on the model of the Greek colonels. Now, with the Cold War at an end, it is generally admitted that a very high price was paid in order to contain the advance of the Left in Italy. But paid by whom, and to whom? The answer isn’t clear. Certainly, political corruption and the collusion between the Government and the Mafia show that a substantial section of Italian society profited, either directly or indirectly, from the situation. Nevertheless, it could not have come about without support from abroad: neither the ‘Mani pulite’ inquiry into political corruption nor the trial in Palermo of the former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti would have been imaginable before 1989. Significantly, Andreotti explicitly traced to an American source the charge that was made against him of colluding with the Mafia.

It is possible to see the massacres as an additional price that was paid to contain the Left. Those who instigated and carried them out, and their accomplices, have in almost every case not been found. However, the changed political climate may now bring to light a few fragments of an inadmissible past. Some weeks ago, a number of files from the Ufficio Affari Riservati (literally, Bureau of Confidential Affairs) were discovered ‘by accident’. The Bureau played a murky role during the ‘strategy of tension’ of the late Sixties and early Seventies, and was then closed down. Apparently, many of the several hundred documents that came to light concern the massacres. But this could be yet another exercise in disinformation.

For years, the police searched for Calabresi’s killers among groups of both the extreme Left and the extreme Right, but to no avail. Then, in 1988, as a result of the confession of Leonardo Marino, a former Fiat worker and subsequently a militant in Lotta Continua, the case was suddenly re-opened. (Lotta Continua itself had been dissolved in 1976.) Marino testified that 16 years earlier he had taken part in Calabresi’s killing, as the driver of the assailants’ car. According to him, the actual assassin had been Ovidio Bompressi, another former militant from Lotta Continua; the instigators had been the group’s leader, Adriano Sofri, and Giorgio Pietrostefani, one of its committee members. On 2 May 1990, the courts in Milan condemned Sofri, Pietrostefani and Bompressi to 22 years in prison, and Leonardo Marino to 11 years. A further six trials were to follow, as part of a process which would last a total of nine years, mainly because of the extreme slowness of the Italian judicial system (normally consisting of three levels, the Assize Court, the Court of Appeal, and the Corte di Cassazione – which considered the case no fewer then three times). While awaiting the final judgment, the accused remained out on bail – they even kept their passports.

On 22 January this year the final verdict was delivered and Sofri, Pietrostefani and Bompressi are now in prison. Their accuser, Leonardo Marino, became a free citizen some time ago: his collaboration with the justice system earned its reward. The judges – although not all of them, as we shall see – maintained that Marino had told the truth, both about himself and about the others.

I had myself come to the opposite conclusion in a booklet entitled The Judge and the Historian: Observations in the Margin of the Sofri Trial (1991), based on an examination of the transcripts of the hearings in the first trial, and of the verdict which ended it: a total of some three thousand pages. In it I argued that Marino could not be believed and that Sofri, Pietrostefani and Bompressi were innocent. I would say exactly the same today, six years later.

Take Marino’s ‘repentance’. He is said to have gone to the carabinieri in a state of moral anguish and remorse for what he had done, yet he continued to commit robberies until the very eve of the ‘repentance’ (he was also selling crêpes from a camper). More important is the fog surrounding his initial collaboration with the carabinieri. Originally, the date given for their first meeting was 20 July 1988. In the course of the trial it emerged that these meetings, which took place at night in the barracks at Sarzana, had started as early as 2 July (although in a press conference on 28 July, Colonel Nobili had spoken of contacts having begun ‘some months ago’), pomarici, the examining magistrate, must have known that he’d origin-ally given the wrong date. Why was that? What had Marino and the carabinieri said to each other during those nocturnal conversations that had not gone on record?

One of those who took part was Colonel Bonaventura, a colleague of General Dalla Chiesa, at that time in charge of the fight against terrorism. In his evidence, Bonaventura stated that Marino had only referred to an unspecified ‘serious event’: he didn’t mention his part in Calabresi’s murder until 21 July, in Milan, in Pomarici’s presence. Who can believe that a senior police officer, long concerned with the Calabresi case, would have rushed off to meet an unknown crêpe vendor with no great story to tell. In fact, it’s clear from the transcripts that both Colonel Bonaventura and Manlio Minale, the President of the Assizes, inadvertently let slip that Calabresi’s murder had been discussed during those nocturnal conversations. Why later hide the fact? Why lie about the circumstances of Marino’s ‘repentance’ (the inverted commas are obligatory)?

The debate about the so-called pentiti, and the role they have played, particularly in the Mafia trials, has long been a lively one in Italy. A number of the charges against Andreotti, for example, are based on statements taken from pentiti. Italian law is clear: charges laid by pentiti must be corroborated independently. Marino, however, was confused about the colour of the car used in the attack, and about his own escape route; he has said that, directly after the killing, he reversed the car about fifteen yards, something which none of the eye-witnesses noticed; he has maintained that he was the driver of the car, whereas several witnesses declared that they’d seen a woman at the wheel, and in some cases were able to describe her in detail. It seems only too probable that Marino lied about having had any part in Calabresi’s murder.

Marino says he first met Sofri after a rally in Pisa on 13 May 1972, and that Sofri there and then, in the middle of a crowded street, gave him the order to go to Milan and kill Calabresi. This seems highly implausible. Apart from anything else, it was raining in Pisa on 13 May. The rain is documented in photographs which show the audience at the rally covered by a sea of open umbrellas, and dozens of witnesses testified to the fact. Was it a real downpour, as Sofri remembered it, or just intermittent rain, as the weather reports said?The verdict reads: ‘It is certain that it started to rain during the rally. Equally certainly, however, it did not rain as hard as the defendant gave us to understand.’ Can a difference of degree – perfectly possible after 16 years – really be taken as evidence of whether Sofri did or did not have a conversation with Marino? According to Marino, there were no witnesses to the conversation. Mind you, he originally said that Pietrostefani was there as well, but changed his story when it was pointed out to him that Pietrostefani, being very well-known in Pisa, would have taken great care not to appear in public, since he was in hiding at the time (as a member of the Lotta Continua committee, he was wanted by the police in connection with a leaflet praising the abduction of an Alfa Romeo employee). The list of contradictions and inaccuracies in Marino’s allegations is endless. And if you ask for the evidence that would confirm his account, the answer is simple: it doesn’t exist. Marino’s word is the only ‘evidence’ there is against the three men.

Why would Marino have lied? There are many possible explanations, including threats and offers of money from the police, but that’s not the problem. It was up to the prosecution to prove that he was telling the truth, and that proof was not forthcoming. The Corte di Cassazione finally acknowledged this in plenary session on 23 October 1992, when it subjected the verdict of the Court of Appeal in Milan to close review: the ‘evidence’ for Marino’s charges was declared insufficient, and the convictions were overturned. A new appeal hearing was begun: the new jury, made up (as Italian law decrees) of robed judges and members of the public, re-examined the case. The accused were acquitted.

In reply, the judge a latere, responsible for drafting the post-hoc justification of the verdict, as Italian law requires, summed up in such a contradictory way that the trial had to be annulled by the Corte di Cassazione on grounds of a procedural breach. In this way, the will of the people, as expressed by a jury, was overturned: another example to quote at those who refer glibly to Italy as ‘the homeland of the law’. A new – and sixth – trial was held, overturning the outcome of the fourth, and confirming the guilty verdict of the first. The verdict of the Corte di Cassazione, which had asked for more convincing proof, was ignored. But it appears that the new verdict was not at all easy to arrive at: some members of the jury at the sixth trial have stated, under the protection of anonymity, that they were pressured by the Court President, Giangiacomo Delia Torre, who had insisted they reach a verdict of guilty. A detailed denunciation of the verdict was produced by the defence lawyers, and the prosecutor’s office in Brescia opened an investigation into alleged irregularities. The sensible course would have been to await the results of this investigation, especially in a delicate and controversial case such as this. The Corte di Cassazione decided otherwise. It deliberated, and it upheld the sentences. Sofri, Pietrostefani and Bompressi have gone to prison. Allowing for remissions, they will probably remain there for 18 years.

The Italian press gave wide coverage to the conclusion of the proceedings, and many people came out – belatedly – on the side of the accused, or at least expressed doubts. But when it was pointed out that a quarter of a century had gone by since Calabresi’s murder, and that Sofri, Bompressi and Pietrostefani, guilty or innocent, are now very different people, Francesco Saverio Borrelli, the chief prosecutor in Milan, who had conducted the original inquiry into Calabresi’s murder, observed that it was meaningless to invoke the length of time that had passed: after all, he said, the same could be held to apply in the case of Priebke, the German officer who ordered the massacre at Fosse Ardeatine in 1944.

One crucial difference is that Priebke, a Nazi, was extradited to Italy from Argentina, where he’d been in hiding for decades. Pietrostefani left France voluntarily – he was not under threat of extradition – to join his two friends in prison. Over the preceding nine years and in the intervals of attending the proceedings, Bompressi frequently visited Bosnia to help in relief schemes, while Sofri wrote articles from Sarajevo while it was being shelled – and saved the lives of three Italian hostages in Chechnya.

Borrelli is a man of lucid intelligence, but his remarks betray a worrying excess of emotion. The ‘Mani pulite’ inquiry has given those who conducted it – Borrelli and the prosecuting magistrates in Milan – considerable prominence in Italian public life. For years, the newspapers and television have reported their every utterance, however insignificant. There is probably a strong temptation to make every contest in which they are involved into a triumph. I have examined closely the transcripts of the interrogations collected by the investigating magistrate, Antonio Lombardi: the warrant ordering the accused to be sent to trial which he drew up, the concluding speeches by Pomarici in the Assize Court and so on. An investigation which started badly finished worse. Some hold, as I have said, that these long-drawn-out judicial proceedings were accompanied by serious irregularities and pressure of various sorts. If, on the other hand, everything has proceeded according to the rules, then we have to conclude that there is something rotten in the rules.

One thing that is unquestionably rotten, and which lies at the root of these proceedings, is Marino’s confession. I’ve already said I am sure that Marino is lying. But is he lying on his own account or because others are prompting him to do so?

To the question who killed Calabresi, I can give no answer. I can only make some observations based purely on common sense. Calabresi’s killers probably came either from the extreme Left, or from the extreme Right – in which case they were inspired and protected by the secret services. If the first assumption is correct, Calabresi was killed because he was held responsible for Pinelli’s death; if the second, it was in order further to inflame an already extremely tense political situation, or maybe because he knew too much. Both theories are plausible: both (but particularly the second) are compatible with the possibility that Marino was induced, either by blackmail or bribery or both, to convict himself and the others. In other words, a further instance of the sort of deception and disinformation that emerged in Italy after 1969. I do not have all the facts with which to reach such a conclusion, but nor do I feel like rejecting it. I’ve already referred to the dubious elements in Marino’s story, from his ‘repentance’ onwards. Now I will add the most worrying of them: the systematic destruction by the police of the material evidence relating to the Calabresi case. The clothes Calabresi was wearing on the day of the murder disappeared in 1972 without anyone having examined them. The blue Fiat 125 used by the assailants was sent for scrap on 31 December 1988, five months after the arrest of Sofri and the others, ‘because of non-payment of road tax between 1978 and 1983’; the bullet which killed Calabresi was put up for auction on 15 February 1987, because of ‘lack of space’. Who could possibly take these grotesque explanations seriously? Were the police trying to hide something? Was there someone they wanted to protect? I am not in a position to answer these questions. I only know that the material evidence was destroyed, that Marino’s words were believed, and that three innocent people were convicted without evidence.

The repercussions of the case have not been confined to Italy. There have been articles in the German press, and a group of French intellectuals signed an appeal launched by Jacqueline Risset in the Quinzaine Littéraire. In Poland, Adam Michnik has recalled the discussions he had with Adriano Sofri in Warsaw in 1979, and publicly expressed the hope that President Scalfaro would intervene to overturn an unjust verdict. Such reactions can be explained partly by the prestige Sofri enjoys, as the best known of the three, and partly by the symbolic significance that the case has assumed as a trial of everything that 1968 stood for.

On the afternoon of 15 February I was in Pisa, along with ten thousand other people, to demonstrate against the verdict condemning Sofri, Pietrostefani and Bompressi. For several hours, the microphones on a makeshift stage broadcast speeches, readings and music. The crowd filled the whole of the large piazza in front of Vasari’s Palace of the Knights of Malta, which contains the Scuola Normale where, in the early Sixties, I met Adriano Sofri and became his friend.

I know Ovidio Bompressi and Giorgio Pietrostefani only by sight. Adriano Sofri has been close to me for many years. After Lotta Continua broke up each of the three took a different road. Bompressi worked as a journalist in Massa. Pietrostefani ran several businesses and was recently involved with a centre for young drug addicts in France. Sofri taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. Shortly after the first conviction, he lost that job, and he then became a newspaper and television reporter. He has written several books, some connected with the trial, others not. Among the latter is the best, and most recent, Il nodo e il chiodo, a poignant intellectual autobiography disguised as a sequence of short, essay-like reflections.

Some people never change, they remain trapped in their youthful dreams, and can accept neither defeat nor the passage of time. Sofri had already long since – about twenty years ago, before Aldo Moro’s kidnapping – taken leave of the dream of revolution. But never, not even for a moment, had he repudiated the political passion that inspired his youth. In Italian legal language there is an expression, distanza di rispetto. I remember I once talked about this with Adriano: the phrase implies that one respects one’s past, but keeps it at a distance. In this mixture of generosity and critical clear-sightedness I recognise the characteristics of someone from whom I have learnt much, and to whom I am deeply grateful.