by Julia Lutsky
On August 25, 1999, after more than a decade of battle to return to her homeland, Sylvia Baraldini was transferred from the federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut to the Rebibbia prison in Rome, Italy. She traveled in a private jet sent by the Italian government; when she arrived supporters threw roses in front of the car that carried her to Rebibbia. Several Italian cities and towns have offered her honorary citizenship, calling her the victim of American injustice.
Baraldini was 13 when her diplomat father brought her to this country in 1961. Introduced to the anti-war and civil rights movements when she attended the University of Wisconsin during the 60s, she became active and remained in the struggle joining the Black Panther Party and working with the Puerto Rican independence movement.
In 1983 she was convicted under the RICO act of "participating in a violent revolutionary group called 'the Family' that committed a series of armed robberies of armored trucks. During the crimes two Brinks guards and two in Nyack, N.Y., police officers were killed." [Seattle-Times, 8/25/99] That she happened to be in Zimbabwe when the crimes were committed made no matter: the RICO statutes hold that all the members of an organization are guilty of the crimes committed by any of its members. At that trial she was also convicted of having participated in the 1979 New Jersey prison break that freed Assata Shakur (Joanne Chesimard). Shakur fled to Cuba where she currently lives. Baraldini was not so lucky. She received 20 years for subversive association (under the RICO statutes), 20 for having participated in Shakur's escape and 3 for contempt of court: a total of 43 years. She had neither killed nor injured anyone, yet, according to Brecha (Uruguay), that same year a Cosa Nostra godfather was convicted in the murders of 20 people and received two years less. The difference was that while the mafia godfather's crimes had not threatened the system, Sylvia Baraldini's had.
While imprisoned in the United States, she suffered isolation in the "white tombs" of Lexington, Kentucky, now closed because of its inhumane conditions. She developed a uterine tumor during her imprisonment and when the operation to remove it was performed she remained handcuffed throughout the entire procedure.
The Strasbourg convention, which the United States has ratified, specifies that a prisoner has the right to serve his or her term in his or her country of origin. Because Baraldini was condemned unjustly for so long a period and because she never renounced her beliefs she has become a symbol of the inequality in international relations and in the reach of international law itself. Though the United States is quick to note the human rights violations of many other countries it has consistently turned a blind eye to its own, her imprisonment being a case in point. Since the end of the eighties and throughout this decade, six Italian governments have put Baraldini's case in their bilateral agenda with the United States. Until now nothing has come of these efforts, though an international movement had sprung up demanding her return to Italy. One of Italy's most popular singers, Francesco Guccini, often sang that "Sylvia neither robbed nor killed anyone." Several times in recent years tens of thousands of people have demonstrated in front of the U.S. Embassy in Rome and attended concerts dedicated to her. Hundreds have demonstrated in Washington, D.C., though those demonstrations have been conveniently overlooked by the corporate media for whom the Baraldini case never existed. She was never regarded as a fighter for human rights but rather as a "terrorist." That she dedicated herself in prison to teaching English to Latin American women prisoners made no matter. "The United States government showed itself to be blind and deaf [to all entreaties]. The arduous trips made by so many Italian Chiefs of State, obligated by the popularity of her case, to try to shape the inflexibility of the White House proved useless." [Brecha, Uruguay, 9/3/99, trans. by PLN]
It was not until a year and a half ago that the possibility of her transfer began to become reality and it took the deaths of 20 vacationers to do it. In February of 1998 a US military jet cut the cable carrying them between the summit and the base of a skiing resort mountain in northern Italy. Italian justice was denied the right to try pilot and crew; brought to the United States they were exonerated of charges. This incident, Italy's cooperation in the war against Yugoslavia, and the mounting international pressure to bring Baraldini home finally resulted in her transfer.
Conditions of her transfer, however, continue to violate international law: in any other country, she would be a free woman already. Nonetheless the Italian government has agreed that she will not leave prison before July of the year 2008. She is not eligible for any pardon, amnesty or exoneration that might be granted to any prisoner detained by the Italian authorities: she must serve her sentence in its entirety. She would be allowed to attend the funeral of her mother but only under strict guidelines; there is no other exception provided. In point of fact, she had not been able to see her elderly mother until they embraced in the airport in Rome; for many years her mother's health has precluded the intercontinental flight.
Sylvia is a longtime PLN subscriber and since its inception PLN has supported Sylvia's campaign to return to Italy. We wish Sylvia the best.
Sources: Seattle Times, 8/25/99; Brecha, Montevideo, Uruguay, 9/3/99, New York Times, 8/26/99 from AP
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