The president of the Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, has asked the supreme court to clarify two possibly contradictory articles in the countrys constitution: whether he has the overall power to sign an act of clemency for an individual prisoner or whether, to be valid, a presidential act of clemency requires the counter-signature of the minister of justice, the guardasigilli.

The request for clarification arises from the presidents desire to grant clemency to one and probably two prisoners, who were members of a left-wing workers' and student group, Lotta Continua, condemned in 1997 to 22 years' imprisonment for the political killing in 1972 of a police commissioner in Milan.

The court case against these two prisoners lasted 12 years. One of the two condemned men, Ovidio Bompressi, who is in very poor health, was accused and found guilty of being the assassin of the police officer, and has now asked for clemency. The president is in favour of granting it in this case, but the minister of justice, Roberto Castelli, member of the right wing Lega Nord, has refused to countersign the act.

The second prisoner, Adriano Sofri, was one of the founder members of Lotta Continua; he has always protested his innocence and has not asked for an act of clemency but for justice.