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COLUMN ONE : Is Italian AIDS Law Spreading Crime? : A 1993 act gives sufferers a virtual ‘get out of jail free’ card. But some repeatedly--even violently--strike out at society, triggering calls for repeal.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As manager of a small bank on a busy street, Roberto Limerutti has been through his share of stickups. “Just the hazards of the trade,” the three-time robbery victim says with a shrug.

But the incident on the afternoon of Aug. 4 was by far the strangest. Two men, unmasked and armed only with upholstery knives, presented themselves at the tellers’ windows and said they wished to “perform an operation.”

Then one of them leaped over the chin-high counter and cleaned out the cash drawers while the other pointed his little blade at a lending officer. It was all over in minutes. The two made off on foot with the equivalent of about $12,000, “in the greatest tranquillity,” Limerutti says. “They didn’t run. They looked like normal customers who had just made a withdrawal and who were now on their way to catch the bus.”

Only when the police arrived and replayed videotapes made by ceiling-mounted security cameras did Limerutti discover why his thieves had been so nonchalant. His bank had been knocked over by the latest brand of criminal to sweep Italy: not terrorists, not Mafiosi, not government bribe-takers, but AIDS patients who had robbed before.

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No one with acquired immune deficiency syndrome in Italy can be jailed. That’s been the law since 1993, when the government rushed through the Chamber of Deputies emergency legislation declaring the illness “incompatible” with prison life.

The drafters of the law wanted to protect healthy inmates from contagion in Italy’s overcrowded prisons. Their bill quickly attracted the overwhelming support of legislators, who saw it as a humanitarian gesture: the offer of a few precious last moments of liberty to emaciated, weak and defeated AIDS sufferers, people on the edge of death.

“It’s like a lot of our laws in Italy,” says Limerutti, who has learned that the two men who robbed his bank are well enough to have held up financial institutions in and around Turin for the better part of a year, scoring about $155,000. “It starts out as a beautiful idea, very just, but in the end it clashes with reality.

“These robbers didn’t exactly look like they were dying,” he adds. “Especially the one who jumped over the counter.”

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To be sure, just a fraction of the thousands released under the AIDS law have taken illicit advantage of it. And among those who have, some say they are merely trying to draw attention to the government’s abandonment of victims of the illness. Still, police, prosecutors and crime victims are complaining that the law is fostering a new kind of criminal who cannot be jailed, no matter what he or she does.

Turin has been particularly hard hit, says Police Chief Giuseppe Grassi, who notes that the pair who robbed Limerutti’s bank were part of a three-man gang so brazen that its members were once arrested five times in a seven-day period.

Each time, the men were freed in a matter of hours, in accordance with the law.

“It would not be so bad if it were just these three, but there are many such cases,” says Turin public prosecutor Marcello Maddalena, who like other observers says that most of Italy’s prison AIDS population has consisted of drug abusers who got the disease by sharing needles.

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“We catch people selling heroin or cocaine, and we have to let them go,” he says. “They can do it five, six, seven times and just keep going. They can even commit murder.”

Consider the antics of Carmela Vona, a petty thief, prostitute and drug addict in her mid-20s who has been walking the streets of Turin armed only with an empty, yet menacing-looking, syringe.

In May, police apprehended Vona after she followed an elderly woman into her building, shoved her onto the floor, sat on her chest and brandished her peculiar weapon.

Vona robbed the woman of all her cash--the lira equivalent of about $8--then gave her a terrifying jab with the syringe. Prosecutors say that luckily the needle got stuck in the woman’s coat and didn’t break her skin. They aren’t sure whether the needle was contaminated with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, that causes AIDS.

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“The interesting thing was, Vona told her, ‘Don’t go to the police, because if I get caught, I’ll just get out again in two days, and I’ll come back and find you,’ ” says Giacomo Sandrelli, the deputy public prosecutor who is handling Vona’s case. “The old woman is terrified.”

Just as Vona predicted, the arresting officers sent her not to jail but to Turin’s Amadeo di Savoia Hospital, where the security consists of a red-and-white mechanical arm going up and down at the entrance to the parking lot. Vona soon walked out the front gate to freedom.

“We don’t want the task of policing these people,” says Dr. Walter Grillone, head of the hospital’s 38-bed infectious-diseases department, where most of the beds are occupied by AIDS patients. “We’re not policemen--we’re doctors.”

Not all infected criminals, certainly, take such in-your-face advantage of Italy’s AIDS law. The men who robbed Limerutti’s bank, by contrast, seem set on winning the hearts of the public. After the Friday afternoon robbery, the ringleader, Sergio Magnis, checked into Amadeo di Savoia, seeking treatment. His two accomplices caught up with him there and, after calling some reporters on their cellular phone, the trio adjourned to the courtyard for a news conference.

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“We’ve been described as the ‘AIDS bandits,’ the ‘untouchables,’ the ‘living dead,’ but in fact we are not criminals,” insisted the 29-year-old Magnis, who appeared before the journalists in a T-shirt with the word Wanted printed across the front. “We have been abandoned, outlawed. I’m convinced that if we had the chance, we’d all go out and work, but no one offers us any work.”

Magnis listed his requirements--a job, a home and medical care--and said that if he didn’t get them, he would go on stealing.

He then tried to tap into the widespread indignation over this country’s vast, ongoing government bribery scandal, saying: “It’s the state which should be ashamed. They’ve been robbing the population for half a century. Now it’s my turn.”

Magnis may be onto something. In 1993, when the AIDS law went on the books, the government allocated 2.1 billion lire, or about $1.3 million, to the creation of guarded treatment centers for newly released criminals with AIDS. The idea was to get people out of the prisons when their disease had advanced to a certain stage and to put them into either policed hospice care or the custody of their families.

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“But none of the money has been spent building the new AIDS facilities,” charges Don Luigi Ciotti, a social-activist priest who runs several hospices for AIDS patients, criminals and the down-and-out. He claims that some of the money is lost in the bureaucracy and that the rest has probably disappeared into the pockets of officials caught up in Italy’s corruption scandal--which includes Health Ministry workers all the way up the power chain to a former federal minister.

Even as the money remained blocked, however, prison wardens have been ejecting their AIDS inmates onto the streets. Since the AIDS law was enacted, 3,000 infected convicts--out of a total Italian prison population of about 54,000--have been released.

Some have returned to their families; but to accommodate the homeless, Ciotti estimates, Italy must provide at least 1,000 new beds.

“The important thing is to create the right atmosphere, so that you can help these people develop in positive ways, even if the rest of their life is very short,” he says. He received the syringe-wielding Vona into one of his hospices after she left Amadeo di Savoia in May and says that she is “a different person” now that she is in the care of a qualified social worker.

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During the news conference, bank robber Ferdinando Attanasio agreed with Ciotti that the Italian government is holding up money that rightfully belongs to AIDS patients.

“I have been waiting for a disability pension since 1989, when I discovered I had the disease,” he said. “Every time I ask [where the money is], they tell me I must wait a bit longer. I might die of starvation in the meantime.”

Police and prosecutors scoff at Attanasio’s pleas, however, arguing that he had been in prison for 14 years before the AIDS law sprung him and had lost any sense of right and wrong.

“There are always going to be people in life who have the vice of thinking they have a right to everything, and no responsibilities,” says Grassi, the police chief, who complains that the media attention given the AIDS bandits has redoubled their sense of self-importance and entitlement.

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“Public opinion is wavering between pity for these poor, misguided people and condemnation,” he says. “But let’s remember the trial of Jesus Christ: One day he was being glorified by the people, and four days later he was condemned. I think the same thing will happen to these people.”

Even as Grassi was speaking, Attanasio was at it again--not robbing a bank this time but violating the terms of his release by taking off on a beach vacation. Police nabbed him in a routine traffic check, found that he was carrying a small amount of hashish and jailed him. The following day he was out again.

“They’ve been given the freedom to rob,” a despairing Grassi says. “Don’t misunderstand me but, speaking as a private citizen, I think these drug addicts should be forced to go into treatment centers, just like the lepers in the Middle Ages.”

From the Italian neo-fascist movement comes an even sterner idea: Romano La Russa, a National Alliance regional councilor from Lombardy, wants to bring back the death penalty.

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“Anybody who stains themselves with such infamous crimes must be definitively cut off from any relationship with society,” he wrote in a communique signed by 11 other councilors, referring to criminals with AIDS. “In particularly serious cases, carried out by individuals whom the state is unable to control, one must not exclude the possibility of the death sentence.”

But La Russa’s solution was dismissed by party higher-ups.

With robberies continuing and public frustration mounting, prosecutors in several Italian jurisdictions have challenged the AIDS law on constitutional grounds, claiming that it violates the concepts of equal treatment under law and the obligatory nature of punishment. The Justice and Health ministries are reviewing the statute, and most people think it will be amended by the end of the year.

The question is not whether to change the law, but to what extent. Ciotti, the hospice operator, thinks only minor revisions are necessary; but in light of the public outcry, he and other AIDS activists fear a law-and-order backlash.

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At Amadeo di Savoia, AIDS patient Domenico Compare says he understands why the bandits began hitting banks--"I’ve been waiting for my disability pension for three years,” he says--but he fears that changes to the law could send him back to prison.

“And prison means death,” says Compare, 33, who says he has been HIV positive for 10 years. “Everybody knows that the health care inside prisons isn’t very good.”

Back at his bank, manager Limerutti is maintaining a wait-and-see attitude about changes in the law. Since the AIDS bandits struck, he has stationed an armed guard in his parking lot. The bank’s glass doors cannot be opened except in emergencies. Customers must go around the doors, passing through a claustrophobic glass-and-metal cage equipped with a metal detector.

“We’re working less calmly now,” Limerutti says of his small staff. “A robbery like this might not look that bad to someone who didn’t go through it, but it does leave psychological scars, knowing you’ve been held up by someone who has AIDS.”

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The broad street in front of his bank leads out of Turin, making a good, fast getaway route, he adds. Statistically, Limerutti is aware that his bank is apt to be robbed again.

“The publicity that these people have received can create copycat robbers,” he says. “Being selfish about it, I hope they go somewhere else. My bank has already been done.”

Janet Stobart of The Times’ Rome Bureau contributed to this report.


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