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Italy’s Kidnapping Laws Criticized

February 5, 1998

ROME (AP) _ This is a tale of two slices of ear, a hostage with a weak heart and his family’s bitter break with Italy’s tough policy on kidnappings.

The case of Giuseppe Soffiantini, a 62-year-old industrialist kidnapped in June, has stirred outrage against a 1990 law that freezes the assets of hostages and their families to prevent ransom payments.

Law enforcement officials credit the law with a sharp drop in kidnappings, long a plague in Italy. Since the law took effect, Italy has averaged five kidnappings a year compared to 36 a year during the peak of the plague, from 1973 to 1988.

But victims, their families and sympathetic lawmakers say it is wrong to put policy before lives.

The debate has heated up since a slice of Soffiantini’s right ear _ a mutilation pioneered in the 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III _ arrived at TG5 television last month, along with a desperate, handwritten appeal from the hostage begging his family to defy the law and pay the ransom.

``I ask you to help me by broadcasting this cry of pain,″ he wrote, calling himself an ``innocent man condemned to death″ by the anti-kidnapping law.

``If the ransom isn’t paid, I’ll be killed,″ he said. The kidnappers, he added, were withholding the heart medicine he has taken since a 1993 bypass operation.

In the next few days, startling details of the Soffiantini case emerged.

His sons told of why they’d broken ranks with the police, of how they’d tried to pay the ransom, and of how the prosecutor on the case tried to block them.

At first, they said, the family cooperated with police. Months went by without a break in the case. And when one finally came in October, the undercover operation went bad, costing an officer his life but producing no solid leads on Soffiantini’s whereabouts.

A few weeks later, the first slice of ear _ Soffiantini’s left _ arrived along with a new demand for $5.7 million. At the same time, the story of Silvia Melis, freed after nine months when a ransom was paid, hit the news.

``This was the point of no return,″ Giordano Soffiantini, the industrialist’s elder son, said later. ``Hearing what she and her father said convinced us there was no other path. We started looking for a way to pay the ransom.″

The family scrambled to raise money and dispatched two envoys with the ransom, but the rendezvous went wrong. The Soffiantinis stashed the money in a safety deposit box, waiting for word from the kidnappers.

Prosecutor Giancarlo Tarquini got wind of the deal. He confiscated the cash and opened a criminal investigation for ``aiding and abetting″ the kidnapping against Giordano, the first ever in Italy against a hostage’s relative.

When the second slice of ear arrived at TG5, the family went public with its story. ``No one will stop us from doing everything possible to free Papa,″ said a defiant Giordano.

The macabre double mutilation and the behind-the-scenes story of the Soffiantini brothers’ thwarted bid to free their father galvanized opposition to the anti-kidnapping law.

Other ex-hostages and their families began coming forward, including several who called themselves ``twice victims″ because they’d been forced to pay income tax on the ransom money they’d raised.

Several important legislators said it was time to rethink a policy which, in the words of Luigi Maconi of the Green Party, imposed the ``terrible necessity″ on people to bypass the law to save their loved ones.

``Blocking assets isn’t a problem for criminals. They don’t give a damn,″ said Tito Melis, the father of ex-hostage Silvia Melis. ``It’s a problem only for the hostages and their families.″

As the debate heated up, top law enforcement officials, including the ministers of justice and interior, began saying the law was more flexible than many people realized and could be interpreted as giving prosecutors the discretion to authorize a ransom payment.

``The primary objective of the state must be saving the life of the hostage,″ they said in a statement.

Italian kidnappers have been known for their cruelty. The mutilation convinced the family of Getty, grandson of the American oil billionaire, to pay a ransom of $2.7 million, and a half dozen other hostages have suffered similar treatment, including an 8-year-old boy six years ago.

It is too soon to know whether the government is making an exception for Soffiantini because of the heat it is taking, or whether a major change in kidnapping policy is likely.

In the meantime, his family has fallen silent, waiting for another chance to buy their ailing father’s freedom. Their last public statement, issued Jan. 29, was an open message to his captors _ and to a government they say failed them.

``We intend to personally and strictly carry out our father’s wishes,″ they said. ``To do everything, scrupulously and freely, that was asked to finally obtain his liberation.″

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