ROME (AP) — A left-wing Italian militant who was convicted of murder in his home country nearly three decades ago was arrested in Bolivia, authorities said Sunday, setting the stage for a climactic end to one of Italy's longest-running efforts to bring a fugitive to justice.
Hours later, Cesare Battisti was handed over to Italian custody, officials said, and he left on a plane carrying him back to Italy to serve a life sentence.
He was captured by Bolivian and Italian officers in Santa Cruz de La Sierra, where he was located by intelligence agents after using one of his mobile devices, Italian police and RAI state television said.
The 64-year-old had lived openly in Brazil for years and enjoyed the protection of left-wing governments on both sides of the Atlantic. But Brazil's outgoing president signed a decree last month ordering his extradition, apparently sparking Battisti's latest effort to flee.
Italian police released a video of Battisti that they said was taken hours before his capture, showing him seemingly oblivious to surveillance cameras tracking him as he walked casually down the street in jeans, a blue T-shirt and sunglasses. A subsequent image showed Battisti's mug shot under the seal of the Bolivian police.
"Cesare Battisti's long flight is over," Justice Minister Alfonso Buonafede declared, adding that he would be taken to Rome's Rebibbia prison as soon as he landed in Italy.
Battisti escaped from an Italian prison in 1981 while awaiting trial on four counts of murder allegedly committed when he was a member of the Armed Proletarians for Communism. He was convicted in absentia in 1990 and faces a life term for the deaths of two police officers, a jeweler and a butcher.
He acknowledged membership in the group but denied killing anyone and has painted himself as a political refugee.
After initially fleeing to Mexico, he then went to France, where he joined dozens of left-wing Italian militants who enjoyed official protection from the French government.
Like Battisti, they fled Italy during that nation's "years of lead," a bloody and turbulent era during the 1970s and 1980s when militants on the left and right carried out bombings, assassinations and other violent acts to try to bring down the Italian government.
After political winds shifted in France, Battisti fled to Brazil in 2004 to avoid being extradited. He was arrested in Rio de Janeiro in 2007, prompting the Italian government to request that he be handed over. But then Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva granted him asylum in 2010.
Battisti was eventually released from jail but was arrested again in 2017 after he was caught trying to cross the Brazil-Bolivia border carrying the equivalent of about $7,500 in undeclared cash. He was released after a few days.
As a result of that incident, Brazilian Supreme Federal Tribunal Justice Luiz Fux said in December that Interpol had issued a request for Battisti's arrest on tax evasion and money laundering charges, leading him to issue a Brazilian warrant. Based on that, outgoing Brazilian President Michel Temer signed the decree ordering the fugitive's extradition.
Brazil's new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, hailed Battisti's arrest and denounced da Silva's government for having granted the Italian asylum.
"Finally, there will be justice for the Italian assassin and partner of ideas of one of the most corrupt governments to ever exist," Bolsonaro tweeted in a reference to da Silva's Workers' Party.
Bolivia's public defender, David Tezanos, said Battisti formally requested asylum in Bolivia on Dec. 21, but he had not received a response from the leftist government of President Evo Morales. Tezanos said Battisti's rights were being violated with his hasty expulsion.
Brazil's foreign and justice ministries said in a joint statement that Battisti "will leave Bolivia direct to Italy to serve his life sentence." The statement was significant since under Brazilian law people extradited to serve life sentences must have their sentences capped at 30 years — a concession rejected by Italian officials on Sunday in insisting that Battisti serve his full term.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini praised Bolivian police and Brazil's new government for following through on the fugitive's case. He called Battisti a "delinquent who doesn't deserve to live comfortably on the beach but rather to finish his days in prison."
Italian President Sergio Mattarella said Battisti should be returned to Italy to "serve his sentence for the grave crimes that stained Italy and let the same be said for all fugitives abroad."
This story has been corrected to show that Battisti first fled to Mexico, then France.
Associated Press writers Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Paola Flores in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.