LONDON (Reuters) - A fugitive Sicilian mafioso arrested in Britain last year after living a quiet suburban life under an alias for two decades won a battle against extradition on Monday when the court found that Italy's prison overcrowding could breach his human rights.
Domenico Rancadore, 65, came to Britain in 1994, cutting all contact with his family in Italy and establishing himself as "Marc Skinner" in Uxbridge, west London, where he lived undetected for over 20 years with his wife and two children.
After being tried in his absence in Italy, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for mafia-type criminal association between 1987 and 1995.
Rancadore's life under the radar came to an end when he was arrested at his London home last August. His daughter told the court she believed an ex-boyfriend had told police who he was.
But after seven months in custody, senior district judge Howard Riddle discharged Rancadore at London's Westminster Magistrate's Court on Monday.
In his judgment, Riddle said he had originally intended to order Rancadore's extradition based on assurances from Italy that the conditions of his detention would not breach his human rights under European law.
But he said a recent higher court decision that found overcrowding in Italian prisons could be a breach of human rights had bound him to discharge Rancadore.
"My intended decision ... was based squarely on my acceptance of an assurance that has recently, and in similar circumstances, been rejected by a higher court," he said.
Italy holds around 62,000 detainees in jails built for fewer than 48,000, according to official data, and prison rights campaigners say some have more than two-and-a-half times the number of inmates that they were designed for.
The European Court of Human Rights last year ordered Italy to address the problem, and the Rome parliament has since passed a law extending the use of electronic tagging and assigning more drug addicts to treatment centers instead of prison.
Rancadore's lawyers had said his detention could put him at risk of inhuman treatment and worsen his already poor health.
Wearing a blue shirt and grey cardigan, the tanned, grey-haired Rancadore stood next to his Italian interpreter in the dock as the judge read out his decision, looking anxiously at his wife.
Rancadore was released on bail pending an appeal by Italian authorities, and ordered to report to his local police station daily and wear an electronic monitoring tag.
Rancadore, nicknamed "U Profissuri" (The Professor) in Sicilian dialect, is the son of Giuseppe Rancadore, former head of the mafia clan in Trabia near Palermo, Sicily's capital, who is serving a life sentence in jail.
Once in Britain, he was virtually untraceable, with a surname taken from his mother-in-law's maiden name. The family house was in his wife's name. He had no passport, no national insurance number, and no work records.
While Riddle accepted that Rancadore had come to Britain before proceedings began against him in Sicily, he still described him as a "classic fugitive" intent on avoiding arrest.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)