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COLUMN ONE : Is Italian AIDS Law Spreading Crime? : A 1993 act gives sufferers a virtual 'get out of jail free' card. But some repeatedly--even violently--strike out at society, triggering calls for repeal.


TURIN, Italy — As manager of a small bank on a busy street, Roberto Limerutti has been through his share of stickups. "Just the hazards of the trade," the three-time robbery victim says with a shrug.

But the incident on the afternoon of Aug. 4 was by far the strangest. Two men, unmasked and armed only with upholstery knives, presented themselves at the tellers' windows and said they wished to "perform an operation."

Then one of them leaped over the chin-high counter and cleaned out the cash drawers while the other pointed his little blade at a lending officer. It was all over in minutes. The two made off on foot with the equivalent of about $12,000, "in the greatest tranquillity," Limerutti says. "They didn't run. They looked like normal customers who had just made a withdrawal and who were now on their way to catch the bus."

Only when the police arrived and replayed videotapes made by ceiling-mounted security cameras did Limerutti discover why his thieves had been so nonchalant. His bank had been knocked over by the latest brand of criminal to sweep Italy: not terrorists, not Mafiosi, not government bribe-takers, but AIDS patients who had robbed before.

No one with acquired immune deficiency syndrome in Italy can be jailed. That's been the law since 1993, when the government rushed through the Chamber of Deputies emergency legislation declaring the illness "incompatible" with prison life.

The drafters of the law wanted to protect healthy inmates from contagion in Italy's overcrowded prisons. Their bill quickly attracted the overwhelming support of legislators, who saw it as a humanitarian gesture: the offer of a few precious last moments of liberty to emaciated, weak and defeated AIDS sufferers, people on the edge of death.

"It's like a lot of our laws in Italy," says Limerutti, who has learned that the two men who robbed his bank are well enough to have held up financial institutions in and around Turin for the better part of a year, scoring about $155,000. "It starts out as a beautiful idea, very just, but in the end it clashes with reality.

"These robbers didn't exactly look like they were dying," he adds. "Especially the one who jumped over the counter."

To be sure, just a fraction of the thousands released under the AIDS law have taken illicit advantage of it. And among those who have, some say they are merely trying to draw attention to the government's abandonment of victims of the illness. Still, police, prosecutors and crime victims are complaining that the law is fostering a new kind of criminal who cannot be jailed, no matter what he or she does.

Turin has been particularly hard hit, says Police Chief Giuseppe Grassi, who notes that the pair who robbed Limerutti's bank were part of a three-man gang so brazen that its members were once arrested five times in a seven-day period.

Each time, the men were freed in a matter of hours, in accordance with the law.

"It would not be so bad if it were just these three, but there are many such cases," says Turin public prosecutor Marcello Maddalena, who like other observers says that most of Italy's prison AIDS population has consisted of drug abusers who got the disease by sharing needles.

"We catch people selling heroin or cocaine, and we have to let them go," he says. "They can do it five, six, seven times and just keep going. They can even commit murder."

Consider the antics of Carmela Vona, a petty thief, prostitute and drug addict in her mid-20s who has been walking the streets of Turin armed only with an empty, yet menacing-looking, syringe.

In May, police apprehended Vona after she followed an elderly woman into her building, shoved her onto the floor, sat on her chest and brandished her peculiar weapon.

Vona robbed the woman of all her cash--the lira equivalent of about $8--then gave her a terrifying jab with the syringe. Prosecutors say that luckily the needle got stuck in the woman's coat and didn't break her skin. They aren't sure whether the needle was contaminated with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, that causes AIDS.

"The interesting thing was, Vona told her, 'Don't go to the police, because if I get caught, I'll just get out again in two days, and I'll come back and find you,' " says Giacomo Sandrelli, the deputy public prosecutor who is handling Vona's case. "The old woman is terrified."

Just as Vona predicted, the arresting officers sent her not to jail but to Turin's Amadeo di Savoia Hospital, where the security consists of a red-and-white mechanical arm going up and down at the entrance to the parking lot. Vona soon walked out the front gate to freedom.

"We don't want the task of policing these people," says Dr. Walter Grillone, head of the hospital's 38-bed infectious-diseases department, where most of the beds are occupied by AIDS patients. "We're not policemen--we're doctors."

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