* Lula has final say on Battisti extradition
* Court ruled 5-4 for his extradition (Recasts with vote giving Lula decision)
By Maria Carolina Marcello
BRASILIA, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Brazil’s top court ruled on Wednesday to extradite former Italian guerrilla Cesare Battisti om murder charges but left the final decision to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who granted him refugee status early this year.
The decision to leave Battisti’s fate in Lula’s hands appears to raise his chances of being allowed asylum in Brazil, despite strong pressure from Italy to extradite the former leftist convicted in absentia of four murders in the 1970s.
The nine justices debated for hours whether Lula had to accept the extradition ruling, eventually voting 5-4 that he did not.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Gilmar Mendes earlier broke a tie among the court’s judges by voting in favor of extraditing Battisti, who went on a hunger strike last week in a Brazilian prison to protest his possible extradition.
Lula’s decision to grant Battisti refugee status was based on a recommendation from Justice Minister Tarso Genro, a leftist who argued the Italian activist was being targeted for his past political views. Battisti denies the murder charges.
Battisti risks life in prison in Italy on the murder charges dating from the 1970s, a violent period known as the "Years of Lead," when he belonged to a guerrilla group called "Armed Proletarians for Communism."
Battisti, who reinvented himself as a novel writer, sent a letter to Lula last week saying he was ready to die in Brazil rather than be sent back to Italy.
"I am ready to die if I have to but never at the hands of my executioners," the letter said.
In his ruling, Mendes disagreed with the government’s characterization of the case, saying Battisti had been convicted of common crimes, not political ones.
Nabar Bulhoes, a lawyer representing Italy in the case, said Lula must respect the Supreme Court’s ruling and the extradition law between the two countries.
Battisti, 54, escaped from an Italian prison in 1981 and lived in France for years, but fled when Paris approved his extradition in 2006. He was arrested on the run in Brazil. (Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Peter Cooney)