Italy disputes US worry mafioso could be "tortured"

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ROME, Oct 16 (Reuters) Italy's justice minister has objected to a US court's refusal to extradite a convicted Mafia drug trafficker on the grounds that a special prison regime he would face in Italy is equivalent to torture.

Rosario Gambino completed a 22-year jail term in California for drug trafficking about a year ago and has since been kept in an immigration detention centre pending an extradition request from his native Sicily.

The Los Angeles Times newspaper reported yesterday that a US immigration judge had ruled that in Italy, Gambino would face a harsh special prison regime that ''constitutes torture''.

The judge was referring to a prison regime known as ''41b'', originally designed for mobsters and extended to crimes such as terrorism. It strictly limits contact with the outside world, visits, access to the open air and contact with other prisoners.

The ruling allows Gambino to stay in the United States, where he has lived since the 1960s as a suspected member of the Gambino crime syndicate, which was once controlled by the late John J Gotti, known as the ''Teflon Don''.

Italian Justice Minister Clemente Mastella said he was trying to find out details of the ruling from the US embassy. He questioned whether Italy's special prison regime for hardline criminals like mafiosi and terrorists was really ''torture''.

Mastella also contrasted widespread use of the death penalty in the United States with Italy's ban on capital punishment.

''I don't know if a country that applies the death penalty is more in line with U.N. values than a country that applies tough prison sentences,'' Mastella told reporters yesterday.

Without regime 41b, Mastella said, ''we would end up with the various Mafia bosses forming a chain of communication and able to plan crimes from inside prison''.

The human rights group Amnesty International has criticised the special regime for imposing ''a severe degree of isolation from the outside world'' and linked it to cases of suicide.

But Italian magistrate Piero Luigi Vigna, a former Mafia prosecutor, told the Corriere della Sera daily that the United States ''can't give lessons in human rights when they have Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib on their conscience'', referring to US prisons in Cuba and Iraq accused of serious human rights violations.

In Sicily, the prosecutor seeking Gambino's extradition said he was considering an appeal against the US court ruling.

REUTERS GL BD1742

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