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Italian ban on paying ransom frustrates victims' families

When a piece of Giuseppe Soffiantini's right ear arrived by mail at the office of a top Italian newscaster last week, the debate over Italy's kidnapping laws took on new urgency.

It was not the first time that the kidnappers of the 62-year-old businessman had sent such gruesome evidence to prove that their victim was still alive. Last November, five months after he was seized at his house outside the northern Italian city of Brescia, his family received a piece of his left ear _ strengthening their conviction that if they wanted to see him alive, they would have to pay ransom.

But under Italian law, families are barred from paying ransom or negotiating with kidnappers, except with the permission of a prosecutor and the cooperation of the police. In fact, the unique 1991 law goes one step further and imposes an automatic and obligatory freeze on assets belonging to the kidnapped victim's family.

The idea was to discourage Italy's kidnapping gangs.

No other Western European country in modern times has experienced the wave of kidnappings that has engulfed Italy since the late 1960s. From 1969 to 1998, 691 kidnappings were reported and 80 victims killed. Of the 479 hostages released, ransom was paid for 372 _ mostly to organized crime groups based either on the island of Sardinia or Calabria in southern Italy. The others slipped away from their captors.

Defenders of the law note that since its passage, the number of kidnappings has plummeted. In the seven years since the law was passed, there have been 38 kidnappings.

But in recent months the law has become the target of public outrage, as families of victims have denounced what they see as a denial of their right to rescue their own.

Two recent cases have served to illustrate the critics' point. In the case of Silvia Melis, a 28-year-old Sardinian woman held by kidnappers for nine months, her seemingly miraculous escape from her captors last November turned out to have been arranged by a local businessman who secretly paid the kidnappers more than $800,000 in ransom; her father had gathered most of the money.

In the case of Soffiantini, the victim is still being held, three months after an Italian undercover agent was killed trying to deliver money to the kidnappers. The shootout, which broke out when kidnappers realized they were dealing with the police, and which was heavily covered by news organizations, intensified the search for Soffiantini and his captors.

"There are things to be said for this law," said Alison Jameson, an author of books on Italian terrorism and organized crime. "But when the police are unable to resolve the case of a man who is very ill and who is surely sitting somewhere on Italian territory, then it is hard to justify a law that prevents any other solution."

In the letter sent Jan. 25 to newscaster Enrico Mentana, Soffiantini wrote he hoped its horrifying contents would "make happen whatever my family needs to pay the ransom."

"If this doesn't end soon, this will be the last cry for help from an innocent man who has been condemned to death by the hypocritical attitudes of one part of society," concluded Soffiantini. "I am asking my sons to pay for my rescue _ not the Italian government, and still less, any Italian prosecutors."

In the meantime, the Soffiantini family tried to bypass the police in December by opening direct contact with the kidnappers. But their effort to hand over $2.3-million was foiled by the sluggish Italian mail system, which delivered the kidnappers' instructions for the drop point three days after the money was to have been picked up.

With Soffiantini's fate still unknown, the pressure for an amendment to Italy's anti-kidnapping law is growing.

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