Why Italy got tough on Red Brigades prisoners

The Red Brigades' winter offensive has provoked the harshest crackdown on terrorism Italy has ever made.

Police have arrested more than 200 terrorists since United States Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier was kidnapped in mid-December.

And for the first time, the Italian government has revoked the prison privileges of the Red Brigades. A thousand imprisoned terrorists are no longer permitted to make telephone calls or receive packages. During family visits, they are separated from visitors by a glass wall, and all letters are censored.It is likely that the two-hour daily exercise period will be suspended soon in an effort to sever all communication between the terrorists and their leaders in prison.

''We had to limit the terrorists' contacts with the outside, even if it meant retreating slightly from our liberal penal philosophy,'' said a top Italian prison official. ''These terrorists were operating as if they weren't behind bars.''

Since the Rovigo prison break in early January, when four women escaped during an afternoon exercise session through a six-foot-wide hole blasted in the prison wall, security authorities have uncovered a sophisticated operation to smuggle explosives and documents to terrorists inside maximum security prisons.

Kilograms of TNT were entering prisons five grams at a time hidden inside bouillon cubes, walnut shells, and between soles of shoes. The terrorists were equally cunning about storing the explosives inside the prison. At one prison, several kilos of explosives were found stashed behind bathroom tiles and under the floor of a prison cell.

Red Brigades' strategies found their way into prison printed on material sewn into shirt collars and cuffs. Patrizio Peci, a Red Brigades leader-turned-informer, confessed to authorities that strategies were mapped out in prison and submitted for discussion to the various columns.

(Through a series of raids last weekend, police said they dismantled the Milan-based ''Walter Alasia'' column, one of the most ruthless and violent groups of Red Brigades commandos. A March 1 Reuters report said 17 suspects were arrested and nine hideouts and arms caches discovered. Among documents found in the hideouts was a plan to free jailed Red Brigades members from Milan's maximum security prison at San Vittore.)

Documents confiscated from terrorist hideouts during the manhunt for General Dozier revealed the terrorists had ground plans of Italy's nine maximum security prisons. Arms and documents recently discovered in a Sardinian hideout have reportedly lead police to suspect the Red Brigades were planning assaults on seven of the prisons as a reprisal for the Dozier setback.

Such evidence at last convinced the government of Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini to invoke a provisory article in the Prison Reform Act of 1975. The article allows the justice minister to suspend prisoners' rights in times of extreme danger. Officials did not invoke prisoners' rights even when Judge Guido Giovanni d'Urso was kidnapped by the Red Brigades last year.

''The Red Brigades have declared war,'' says a high-ranking US Embassy official, ''and so now it's a different ballgame.''

There are several reasons the government was previously reluctant to treat terrorist prisoners too harshly. On a philosophical level, officials believed it was possible to rehabilitate terrorists and reintegrate them into society, even though the terrorists had spurned overtures such as the prison education programs. The government was also determined not to give the terrorists the slightest basis for their accusations of inhumane treatment.

Finally, part of the government's strategy was to win over informers, many of whom were later used as information-gathering moles inside the prisons and out.

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