Defending the indefensible

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THERE are not many certainties about the life of Giovanni di Stefano.

Some of it may be true, some of it may be bluster. What is certain is that he is a convicted conman, jailed for five years in 1986 under the name John di Stefano. He served three years, and although he claims his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1988, a transcript of an appeal in 1987 shows that three judges rejected it as groundless.

It is also known that after a 1990 solicitors’ disciplinary tribunal hearing, he is barred from employment by UK solicitors without permission from the Law Society. The Law Society says it has no record of him.

Di Stefano has long been a gratuitous self-publicist, but what has catapulted him back into the limelight this time is his appearance on the nation’s TV screens speaking up on behalf of Britain’s most prolific mass murderer, Harold Shipman.

Shipman, said di Stefano, had been planning an appeal against his conviction. He was about to celebrate his birthday: why would he want to kill himself? Not that he was suggesting anything untoward himself, he hastened to add. He was just asking the questions.

"Dr Shipman had never, ever accepted his guilt, and he’s never, ever admitted culpability in any of the murders that he’s convicted of. Something is not really quite right there. No allegations from myself.

"A person who has a ground of appeal, a precedent in the Court of Appeal to allow themselves to appeal, commits suicide a day before his birthday?"

Di Stefano had already made a habit of backing the causes of unpopular figures. Despite the question marks over his legal qualifications, he managed to get Palmer off a 33 million fine on a technicality, and sprang Mr van Hoogstraten from jail by overturning his manslaughter conviction.

Not only has he helped these clients to overcome the legal system, he clearly admires them. Of Mr van Hoogstraten, he has said: "When he was active in London in the Sixties and Seventies, he was an idol of mine." As for Palmer, a man credited with defrauding 17,000 people, he said: "It’s thanks to him that people have been able to dream about the sun."

However, Mr van Hoogstraten might be a deeply unattractive character, but he is no mass murderer. Shipman, on the other hand, is believed to have killed at least 215 of his patients.

Di Stefano was born in southern Italy on 1 July, 1955, and at the age of five he moved with his parents to Northamptonshire. There is a suggestion that he is the John di Stefano who was jailed in 1976 for three years for fraud at Middlesex Crown Court. Both men had the same date and place of birth, although di Stefano denies he was the man who was jailed. it is, however, certain that he was jailed for fraud in 1986.

He now claims to be worth 450 million, but di Stefano’s first financial break came when he began importing videos into the UK from Hong Kong. Later, he was involved in a bid to buy the MGM studio in Hollywood. In a documentary, he said: "When we closed the deal in New York, many people thought there was money that came from organised crime. It wasn’t. We just borrowed it. The bank weren’t fully aware we were going to borrow it, but borrow it we did."

The deal went sour, with two of his partners charged with fraud, tax evasion and money-laundering and di Stefano deported from the United States as an undesirable alien.

From the US he went to Yugoslavia, where he ran into Arkan. "Such a great man," he said of the notorious killer. Then, last year, he turned up in Scotland, offering to save Dundee Football Club. From the start, he made no secret of his colourful past.

"My political life has also brought me friendship with Yasser Arafat, Gerry Adams, Saddam Hussein and his son Uday," he told The Scotsman.

"I am general sales agent for Yugoslavia for Iraqi Airways and visited His Excellency last year in Baghdad. However, such is the nature of political life. I also know other politicians who are not attracting controversial attention.

"I also support Mr Alex Salmond of the SNP and believe him to be the best leader for Scotland. However, such does not make me a member of the SNP."

He remains on the Dundee board.

Not content with popping up on every television news programme to vouch for Shipman’s stability of mind this week, di Stefano was back again a couple of days later, this time as the subject of a documentary, The Devil’s Advocate.

It did not take him long to hit his controversial stride; contemplating a picture of Shipman, he pondered: "Does he look like a guilty man?"

And then he rattled through his checklists of subjects to offend the easily offended. Mussolini was fine, there was no written evidence to link Hitler with the "Final Solution", and of course he would take on Saddam’s case. All the old chestnuts.

But now it seems the di Stefano show may be coming to an end. His claims to be a qualified avvocato - an Italian lawyer - are in doubt after he failed to produce evidence to justify them. Without such a qualification, he would not be eligible to practise as a solicitor or barrister in the UK.

As a foreign lawyer, he would also be required to be registered with the Law Society: the Law Society says that as far as it is concerned, he is not entitled to practise in the UK.

At the last count - and allowing for the loss of Shipman - he claimed to have 36 clients in jail awaiting appeals. But despite the success of the van Hoogstraten and Palmer cases, with the Lord Chancellor being urged to investigate the Italian’s right to practise law in the UK, his most impressive legal performance may yet need to be in defence of Giovanni di Stefano.

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