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Defending The Indefensible

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Lawyer Giovanni di Stefano is making headlines for representing a convicted blackmailer, but, as ShortList reports, it’s just one of many criminals he’s defended.

Royal blackmailer Ian Strachan is on the run. In 2008, he was the first man in 100 years to be convicted and serve time for blackmailing a member of the royal family, and in a succession of moves almost specifically designed to delight the tabloid press, the fallout has been equally explosive. Not only did Strachan breach the terms of his parole release last March, but he’s also claimed to have spent £34,000 on plastic surgery in a bid to evade capture. Furthermore, he refuses to return to the UK until his conviction is quashed. But will that ever come to pass? That all depends on the man handling his appeal, the so-called ‘Devil’s Advocate’, Giovanni di Stefano.

When Strachan was hauled in front of a judge at the Old Bailey on the charge of trying to extort £50,000 from

a royal family member over an alleged sex scandal, he didn’t appoint just any criminal lawyer. He hired Di Stefano, a man whose client roster reads like a Who’s Who of villainy: Saddam Hussein, Gary Glitter, Charles Bronson, Tariq Aziz, Nicholas van Hoogstraten and Ian Brady, to name a few. He also has a habit of befriending autocrats, and currently counts Robert Mugabe as a friend who “listens to some of the advice” he offers. He is not afraid of controversy – neither, it seems, is he intimidated by the British courts and press. And whether or not Di Stefano is a maverick and in possession of a loose moral compass, as has been claimed, he’s certainly not afraid of courting — or defending — infamy.

CONTROVERSY magnet

Born in a village near the city of Campobasso in southern Italy but raised in Northamptonshire from the age of six, when his family emigrated to the UK, the 55-year-old has spent many of his years dabbling with notoriety. He’s been arrested on fraud charges — most recently on Valentine’s Day this year (he claims the allegations are “spurious”). He is not registered as a solicitor or barrister in England but as an advocate in Italy, a qualification that is recognised here and gives him the right to represent clients in this country. He’s headed up million-pound business deals largely involving football clubs (most of which haven’t materialised) and enjoyed close personal relationships with hugely powerful, but also hugely controversial, political figures, including the deceased Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic and the equally dead Serbian warlord Arkan.

But acquaintances aside, it’s the names of the clients Di Stefano has defended that have rustled up the greatest indignation in Middle England, not least, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who at the most conservative estimate was thought to have murdered around 800,000 people. “He’s guilty of nothing,” states Di Stefano, when ShortList puts it to him that most people believe Hussein to be a brutal dictator. “He was found guilty of retaliation in Dujail [the killing of 148 Shias in 1982]. But if we go by the rule of law, he was never tried for genocide at Anfal because he was executed before that trial concluded, so all you can say is that there are allegations against him.”

This steadfast commitment to the rule of law regularly emerges in conversation with Di Stefano. And, despite the villains on his books, it does show, at least in his guise as an advocate, a certain respect for the Code Of Conduct Of The Bar Of England & Wales. The code operates almost like the Hippocratic oath for members of the bar, and ensures that fees, personal interest in the subject, and whether the barrister likes the client or not, has no bearing whatsoever on taking up the case. Put simply, the clients’ morals don’t come into it. As long as the barrister has the skills, the ability and the experience in that area of law, then they should accept the case. “It’s called the cab rank rule,” explains a spokesperson from the Bar Standards Board. “It’s almost like a taxi. You have to take your customer, unless there are really extreme circumstances that mean you can’t do that work.”

It goes some way to undermine the often-repeated claim that Di Stefano’s only motive in working with such high-profile clients is to augment his own glory. “They choose me; I don’t go looking for business,” he says, although such earnest protestations haven’t altered his reputation in the law profession, as Paul Cheston, the Evening Standard courts correspondent, explains: “Most traditional barristers look down their noses and regard him as an Italian upstart. His long list of celebrity villain clients reveals a flair for showmanship and self-promotion more than courtroom achievement.” A sentiment echoed by Robert Verkaik, law editor of The Independent: “The fact that his cases are usually lost causes suggest that he is little more than a professional controversialist. Rather than the ‘Devil’s Advocate’, he should be better described as the ‘Advocate Of Last Resort’.” Not that such comments will deter the indefatigable Mr Di Stefano: “Obviously I’m the second most cited lawyer in the UK [press] and I’m not there, so obviously you get a bit of jealousy,” he says, referring to his office base in Italy.

But would a mere ‘showman’ have a litany of desperate and infamous clients vying for his services? Certainly, his success with reviled British landlord Nicholas van Hoogstraten in 2002 has done him little harm in terms of attracting society’s shadier characters. No stranger to the courts, Van Hoogstraten was handed four years in prison in 1968 for ordering a gang to throw a grenade into the home of someone who owed him £3,000 (in modern terms, £300,000), and history repeated itself in 2002 when two assassins (one an associate of Van Hoogstraten) were found guilty of murdering one of his business rivals.Van Hoogstraten, too, was charged with murder.

It wasn’t a case a defence team seemed likely to win. During his trial, however, his defence successfully argued that his client could not have foreseen that the attack would have resulted in murder. The sentence was duly dropped to manslaughter. Then Di Stefano took on Van Hoogstraten’s appeal, and successfully argued that the prosecution didn’t have sufficient evidence for a manslaughter charge, and the conviction was overturned. It was met with some admiration: “There is no doubt that more established law firms were reluctant to take on the notoriously prickly rogue landlord and Di Stefano has to be acknowledged as playing some part in exposing the flaws in the trial which led to Van Hoogstraten’s release,” says Cheston.

And while many may believe that Van Hoogstraten could have benefited from a good few years locked away from the public, including, no doubt the assassinated man’s family, Di Stefano again cites the law when ShortList asks him if his emotions ever come into play during proceedings. “There are no winners. If I succeed in a case, it’s not a victory; it’s a failure of the system. I certainly don’t drink champagne, I just do my job. People in government are probably riled at my client list but if ever one of those people in government got in trouble they’d be honoured to have me as their defence counsel — I’d probably be the first person they’d call.”

TAKING ON BLAIR

Strangely — and in contradiction to his claim that the cases come to him — it’s a member of the (former) government that Di Stefano is on the hunt for next. Tony Blair is the man he’s after, as he feels the conflict in Iraq was illegal.

Di Stefano also believes it’s his recently issued indictment of the former British PM to the attorney general that caused him to be picked up by the City Of London Police this month, in a pointed revenge attack. When he spoke to ShortList earlier this year, Di Stefano said that he would be “honoured” to defend Osama bin Laden if he ever came to light, adding, “When there was an attack on Afghanistan, Tony Blair claimed he had 20 pages of facts on Bin Laden being responsible for the American atrocities [the 9/11 attacks]. I’d defend [Bin Laden] just to see those 20 pages of facts.”

An agent provocateur who certainly doesn’t mince his words, a friend of the highly dubious and a defender of the indefensible; it’s an exposed stance, but one that Di Stefano defiantly adopts. “Everyone hates Satan, but we never actually heard his side of the story. Nobody knows his case,” he once said by way of explaining his career path. And although Di Stefano claims to have faith himself, his belief in the power of law — when operating as an advocate — appears to be greater; “I’m a born Catholic,” he says, “but I would not like to be excluded from heaven on a technicality.”

(Image: BBC)

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