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Bettino Craxi; Italy’s Longest-Serving Postwar Premier

From Associated Press

Bettino Craxi, a Socialist who defied Washington and stood up to Italy’s powerful Communists during a record term as premier, died Wednesday in Tunisia, where he had fled to avoid a prison sentence for corruption convictions. He was 65.

Craxi died of a heart attack at his seaside villa in Hammamet, said his lawyer, Giannino Giuso.

Craxi had suffered for years from heart problems and complications of diabetes. In November, a Milan court ruled that he could return to Italy for bypass surgery on the condition that he serve his corruption sentence under house arrest. Craxi refused.

“I’d only return as a free man. Any different way, I won’t return . . . alive [or] dead,” Craxi told Italian state TV.

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Craxi was Italy’s longest-serving premier of the postwar years. His two back-to-back terms, from August 1983 to March 1987, were a remarkable feat in a country of “revolving door” governments.

He defied the United States in 1985, refusing to hand over the Palestinian commandos who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship and killed a wheelchair-bound American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.

Craxi also defied Italy’s Communists--the largest Communist Party in the West and a big vote-getter in Italian politics--by allowing NATO nuclear-tipped missiles to be installed in Sicily.

Craxi was delighted by his political staying power. He once recalled his reception by other European leaders at a summit in Germany in 1985. “The other members looked at me, seemingly relieved--as if to say, ‘Oh, we know him, it’s the same guy we saw at the last meeting,’ ” he said.

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“The best vacation is power,” Craxi once said. Those words came back to haunt him when his Socialists, along with the Christian Democrats they ruled with in several coalition governments, were disgraced by the inquiries begun by Milan’s “Clean Hands” prosecutors in the early 1990s.

They eventually uncovered a well-oiled system in which businessmen filled party coffers and politicians’ pockets with hundreds of millions of dollars in exchange for deals with the sprawling state economy.

Throughout the scandal, Craxi maintained that he was an innocent victim of a vendetta by jealous politicians.

He fled Italy in 1994, and a year later a Milan court declared him a fugitive from justice. Two corruption convictions have been upheld by Italy’s highest criminal appeals court, with sentences of 4 1/2 and 5 1/2 years. Craxi was absolved in three other cases.

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Born Benedetto Craxi in Milan on Feb. 24, 1934, he was the son of a Sicilian lawyer who left the island to migrate north. Craxi dropped out of the University of Milan to enter the world of politics.

He was first elected to Parliament in 1968. A decade later, as the Socialists became the key to forming a government without the Communists, Craxi worked to move his party away from the Communists and became its leader in 1981.

Craxi’s daughter, Stefania, said he will be buried in Tunisia.

Besides his daughter, survivors include his wife, Anna, and son, Bobo.

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