The devil’s advocate

Giovanni di Stefano — adviser to Slobodan Milosevic, friend of Saddam Hussein, admirer of Osama bin Laden, former aspirant owner of Northampton Town football club, Italian lawyer, Serbian army general and prospective British member of the European Parliament — extends a soft, fleshy hand and introduces himself, rolling the Italian syllables round his tongue with what appears to be studied relish.

Then, ”Pleased to meet you,” he says, in the kind of broad Cockney accent you imagined had died out in the 1950s. ”Shall we?”

We are in court number two of London’s Old Bailey, from which the convicted killer Nicholas van Hoogstraten has just been removed. Van Hoogstraten (he calls him Van Hoogenstraten) is Di Stefano’s latest client.

”I’m just his lawyer,” says the Italian at his rattlebag pace. ”I have never met him before in my life, I have never seen him before, I have no business interests. I received a phone call saying that he, Mr Hoogenstraten, sought advice on the outcome of his trial, and obviously … well, it’s clients who choose lawyers.”

He leans back in his chair and smiles broadly, flicking absent-mindedly at his fat fingernails. The smoky tang of his aftershave hangs thick in the still air of the courtroom corridor.

Di Stefano’s Italian website says he specialises in aviation, bankruptcy, civil rights, corporate law and criminal law. In fact, his speciality is villains — and the badder the better.

His client roster is a veritable rogues’ gallery of the most notorious criminals of the past few decades; so apparently comprehensive, indeed, that it verges on the comical, like some exhaustive study in dastardliness.

His old friend, Serbian warlord Arkan, is there (before the warlord’s assassination, Di Stefano was his spokesperson and business partner, as well as his lawyer) as is Milosevic, who now receives the benefit of his advice while defending himself at The Hague war crimes tribunal.

He has represented the timeshare fraudster, John ”Goldfinger” Palmer, and the ”black widow”, Linda Calvin. He acted, he says, for Perry Wacker (”You may recall Mr Wacker … ‘imported’, shall we say, 58 Chinese people in a lorry. Who suffocated.”).

He says Kate Kray, Reggie’s widow, has instructed him to challenge her husband’s conviction. There may be ”developments”, he hints darkly, in the Harold Shipman case. He would defend his friend Saddam, he has said, if he were ever arrested and charged. And he also (he claims) advised Jeffrey Archer at his sentencing hearing.

Why is he drawn to such a collection of unsavouries? Di Stefano, characteristically, doesn’t quite answer the question. ”Yes, I can’t argue with that. Well, we do not defend Snow White. Snow White has committed no offence, unless she is with the seven perverts. In which case she will need our services. So if you do not commit crime, or unless you enter some business, you will never come across me. No reason why you should. In fact, it’s best to avoid me, as otherwise it means you need my help.”

But it is no longer only villains that Di Stefano wants to save. He also –and this is where it starts getting very weird — wants to rescue some of Britain’s lower league football teams, most recently bidding to take over Northampton Town (pulling out only when the entire board threatened to resign in protest).

Though he confesses to zero interest in or knowledge of football, he says he hasn’t yet given up the fight for Northampton. And now he also wants to run in the 2004 European parliamentary elections.

But why do this when he vociferously refuses to take British citizenship, despite adding an honorary Serbian passport to his Italian one? ”One of the good things about having money is that you can afford your … hobbies. Your … toys.” He swears he will win and plans to found his own political party to do so.

Is Di Stefano for real? Unpacking the truth behind his comic-book biography is a tricky business. He was born 47 years ago to a poor family in Southern Italy; when he was five he moved to Northamptonshire.

”I was kidnapped,” he says, deadpan, when we meet for a second time in his flat just around the corner from the Old Bailey.

It’s a habit of his, to pepper his conversation with outrageous details. Kidnapped? ”Well, I didn’t want to come. I was kidnapped, effectively, by my parents.”

Later, ”I made an enormous amount of money at Cambridge University in 1981.” But he didn’t do a degree there, did he? He admits not. He gets a bit vaguer after this, half confirming reports that his early fortune came from importing videos from Hong Kong.

He did not, he says, ever work as a waiter, as has been reported. But he confirms that it was in the Hilton hotel in London that he first met a young Serbian called Zeljko Raznatovic, later to become the warlord Arkan, with whom he would have a profitable business association decades later.

He tells me the details of this meeting, in his vague manner — twice. I am not sure whether he notices that the two versions are entirely contradictory. When pressed, he simply wriggles away, talking at speed and veering on to another subject.

Thus, he says: ”We discussed, we spoke, for maybe two, three hours, and I never saw him again [until they met again in Serbia decades later]. I met him, like I meet you today.”

What he will admit is that in the early 1990s he turned up in Serbia (he insists on correcting me each time with a stern ”Yugoslavia”) with a large amount of money to his name and a desire to keep his head down for a while.

Di Stefano had recently tried to buy the film studios MGM, but the deal had gone awry amid a bit of a scandal. He says Credit Lyonnais bank demanded that his consortium pay back a vast loan of $2-billion, but that he negotiated a settlement deal that ”made me a considerable amount of money. And I really quite fancied being able to keep it. And one of the safest places you can be in that circumstance is in a war zone, because no one is going to bother you.”

He hooked up with his old friend Arkan and became an honorary general in his militia, the Tigers. The pair bought a struggling football team, Obilic, then in the Serbian second division. Then in 1999 he made a bid for Dundee FC, a deal which very nearly went through before fans’ protests forced its collapse. He insists the motive was just money.

Rather unfortunately for the lawyer, the publicity also attracted the attention of the British police, who had a five-year-old warrant for the lawyer’s arrest on fraud charges. He was extradited from Italy; the case collapsed 18 months later. He had also spent three years in an English jail in the 1980s for theft — the conviction was later overturned on appeal.

Then, last year, the very same thing happened at Norwich, the club’s president dismissing his bid as ”an absolute joke”, thus, rather delightfully, making him surely the only man in the world to claim the personal friendship of Saddam and the personal enmity of Delia Smith.

Ah, yes, Saddam. Their connection came about, he says, through his visits to Baghdad as the sales agent for Iraqi Airlines in Serbia. ”Well I don’t have coffee with him or talk about girls or football, but I have had the honour of meeting his excellency President Saddam Hussein several times and I find that he is an extremely logical and hard-working man.

”That’s the important thing — he’s hard working. All this talk of having so many wives and mistresses … well!” He scoffs. ”Let’s look at our own politicians.” What about the fact that he has used chemical weapons on his own citizens? ”Well. That was 14 or 15 years ago.” He grins.

Hamlet’s ”smiling, damned villain” is clearly a role Di Stefano doesn’t mind one bit. He is, for example, the most shameless namedropper I have ever come across, all of them figures of varying degrees of notoriety whom he ”knows well” or has met: John Gotti, Bernie Cornfield, Mohamed al Fayed, Hugh Hefner, Ayatollah Khomeini, Robert Maxwell, Gerry Adams, Rupert Murdoch, Yasser Arafat.

It may be the self-conscious tallness of his tales, but he has an undeniable quality of fictional devilishness: think Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, or perhaps Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate — or better yet, Milton’s Satan. The comparisons would, I am sure, delight him. Better to reign in hell, after all, than serve in heaven.

The most outrageous of his claims is that he met Bin Laden in 1998 during a visit to Baghdad. Now this really is dynamite, I say, especially to those parties looking for links between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. So why hasn’t this sighting become a major plank of any proposed war on Iraq? Does he think he is believed? He answers another question entirely, that if Bin Laden was there, it doesn’t mean he is guilty by association. Perhaps truth, to Di Stefano, is less a single nugget to be uncovered than a plausible argument whose logic is unchallengeable, even if its conclusion is implausible. He is a lawyer, after all.

Well, then, what was Bin Laden like? ”I found he had a handshake like a priest. Warm. And secondly, he had a wonderful manner of speaking. Very soft. A calming effect. Almost like a psychiatrist, in a way.

”And his intimate knowledge of the fine arts. You felt at ease. And he had a wonderful smile. Aquiline nose that reminded me of Dante. Now, you are going to say I am promoting his image. I am not. But listen: everybody hates Satan, but we never actually heard his side of the story. Nobody knows his case, the Bible never says a word in his defence. We don’t know why he did what he did.”

Smiling. ”But I’d like to hear his case.”

A few days later Di Stefano was back at the Old Bailey to see Van Hoogstraten sentenced. He will now lead the appeal for the self-styled ”emissary of Beelzebub”. I ask him, finally, why he has agreed to talk to me. He says The Guardian is the only paper that reported the original Van Hoogstraten trial to his satisfaction, which I think may be an insult.

”And you have a reputation for being … a controversial newspaper. So The Guardian and I,” he allows himself a broad grin. ”We are, to a degree, soulmates.” — (c) Guardian Newspapers 2002

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Esther Addley
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