Domenico Rancadore, 65, who is said by the Italian authorities to be the head of a Mafia clan based in Trabia near Palermo, was set free after Westminster Magistrates’ Court rejected the request for his extradition.
Judge Howard Riddle said that he had been ready to order Rancadore’s return to Italy until the High Court ruled in a different case last week that conditions in Italy’s prisons were unacceptable and in breach of the Human Rights Act.
The judge said that he had no choice but to abide by the decision of the higher court.
Rancadore was released on bail and fitted with an electronic tag pending an expected appeal by the Italian authorities.
The case raises concerns about the conduct of further extradition cases between Britain and Italy. Between 2009-13 Italy requested the extradition of 49 suspects who were detained in Britain under the European Arrest Warrant. All but six of those were surrendered.
Britain has had good working relationships with the Italian authorities, notably securing the swift return of one of the 21/7 bomb suspects in 2005.
The ruling in the Rancadore case was effectively determined by a judgment last week in the case of Hayle Abdi Badre, a Somali citizen who was wanted in Florence for financial offences.
The High Court ruled that he could not be returned to Italy because of concerns aired in a previous European Court judgment about the state of Italy’s prisons.
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A 2013 European ruling said that there was “a systemic problem in the Italian penitentiary system resulting from a chronic malfunction”. The crux of the problem is that prisons built to hold 45,000 inmates are holding more than 66,000 and have an overcrowding rate of 148%.
The High Court said that assurances provided by Italy in the Badre case were too general and could not be relied upon.
Ruling on the Rancadore case, Judge Riddle said that the decision of the High Court was “binding” on him.
He said he was “satisfied that the warrant is valid, there is no statutory bar and extradition is compatible with the defendant’s Convention [human] rights, including prison conditions”.
However, the judge said the High Court ruling in Badre — that assurances from Italy were “not sufficient” in the light of systemic problems in the Italian prison system — could not be overruled.
Rancadore, who was known as The Professor in his native Sicily, moved to London in 1994 with his British-born wife and two children. He used the name Marc Skinner and worked as a chauffeur.
He was found guilty of Mafia association and extortion in Italy in 1999 and given a seven-year jail term. The Italian courts ruled that he was a member of “an extremely dangerously armed Mafia-type organisation”. Witnesses said that he had taken kickbacks from government contracts.
Previously, the court was told that he had fled Italy because he wanted “a normal life” for his family and had “cut every tie” to his past.
He was arrested in August last year and it is alleged that he had taken extreme steps to hide his presence in Britain — changing his name, not having a national insurance record and having the family home in his wife’s name.
The prosecution alleged that he had been “deliberately absent” from the 1999 trial, where he was subsequently sentenced, and had deliberately “hidden” his identity because he knew that he was a wanted man.
Rancadore, who worked as a teacher in Sicily, said that he came to Britain legally in 1994, changed his name to avoid being associated with his father and ended all contact with his family abroad.