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Friday July 2, 08:18 PM AAP

Fraudster claims to be defending Saddam

A globe-trotting Anglo-Italian who has been convicted of fraud - and was exposed as a liar in Auckland in 1990 - re-emerged in the New Zealand media.

Giovanni di Stefano claimed on National Radio to be one of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's team of 20 defence lawyers.

He said, on the Nine to Noon programme, that he had been hired by Hussein's wife, Sajida, and his three daughters, Raghad, Rana and Hala as part of the defence team, and would be arguing that under Iraqi law, the former dictator should not be tried.

"I will be going out on the 9pm plane from London to Oman, and subsequently travelling to Baghdad to meet our clients", he said.

The 49-year-old said he had not flown to Baghdad for Hussein's first appearance in court because it was his birthday and he wanted to spend it with his aged mother.

On arrival, he would start drafting submissions that argued Hussein could not be taken to trial under Iraqi law, because his actions while at the head of the country had been covered by "sovereign immunity".

Di Stefano arrived in New Zealand in 1990 giving the impression that he was an Italian lawyer from Beverly Hills, apparently with up to $100 million to invest, and he sought to buy $59 million of Auckland property.

Di Stefano and his then wife, Tanja, who was born in Kawerau, took a high profile when they paraded around Auckland in May 1990.

Di Stefano made multi-million-dollar bids in a depressed property market for the Royal Oak shopping mall, Takapuna Beach Motel, Park Lane Motor Inn and a beachfront Mairangi Bay home, and he also investigated buying a share of TV3.

But after arousing the suspicions of a number of people, including Serious Fraud Office chief Charles Sturt and broadcaster Paul Holmes, it emerged that di Stefano had in 1986 been convicted and jailed for five years on fraud charges in the UK, worth $75 million.

Di Stefano denied the conviction, saying the "John di Stefano" convicted for bank fraud was his cousin, but a fingerprint check proved this was a lie.

Di Stefano left New Zealand and was subsequently refused entry when he later tried to return, on the grounds he had not disclosed his conviction. He flew to Honolulu, and the Auckland property deals folded.

Holmes reportedly became suspicious of di Stefano after noticing that his expensive clothes did not seem to be his own - the trouser cuffs dragged on the ground.

In fact, di Stefano terminated the interview on National Radio with an argument that questions about his legal credentials were like other interviewers in New Zealand who wanted to know whether he wore long pants or short pants.

He said an early move in Saddam Hussein's defence would be to claim "sovereign immunity".

"It is not quite so certain that this trial will proceed, because of submissions that I will be making next week on the question and the international jurisprudence on sovereign immunity," he told on National Radio in New Zealand.

"It is a matter that I have raised as a new matter," he said.

"Article 40 of the Iraqi constitution gives absolute sovereign immunity," he said, comparing it to Britain, where he said that technically, Queen Elizabeth could kill someone and not be charged by a court.

"Saddam Hussein enjoyed exactly the same sovereign immunity that her majesty Queen Elizabeth enjoys," he said.

Saddam Hussein could not be formally charged until this issue had been sorted out, he claimed. He planned to make submissions to the Iraqi Special Tribunal in the next 10 days.

The crimes against humanity for which Saddam is expected to be tried include the 1988 chemical weapons massacre of Kurds in Halabja, the slaughter of Shi'ites during a 1991 uprising in southern Iraq, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Di Stefano said Hussein could take the stance that he was president of a country with sovereign immunity and that he could not be tried under Iraqi law.

Asked whether he thought Hussein was a dictator who had ruled by cruelty, torture, violence and terror, Di Stefano said he had no idea how "His Excellency" gained 98 per cent of the vote, because he had not lived in Iraq.

"I'm a criminal lawyer engaged to do a job in a criminal defence," he said.

In fact, questions have been raised about whether he has a law degree, and is properly registered as a lawyer in Italy, where there are 150 different law societies.

He has racked up a gallery of associates that include a string of high profile killers.

In Serbia, he befriended Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic - better known as mass-killer Arkan the Butcher - a man di Stefano described as "a great guy... he was a great person".

Raznatovic was indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal for atrocities in Bosnia, but was assassinated in Belgrade in 2000 before being brought to trial. Di Stefano said his associate died an innocent man, because in a democracy people had to be accepted as innocent until proven guilty.

He claimed in a BBC interview to have met Osama bin Laden in Baghdad in 1998: "He had a handshake like a woman," he said. "He had a soft voice. He spoke like a priest".

In the same visit, he met Saddam Hussein: "an extremely logical and hard-working man ... a very amusing man".

He has also claimed friendship with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and that he is one of eight lawyers for Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav dictator facing a UN war crimes tribunal at the Hague for crimes against humanity.

In February this year, di Stefano featured in a British radio documentary about the integrity of football club directors, in which it was revealed that while in a British jail, he wrote a letter on paper with a prison letterhead, offering to buy London club Queen's Park Rangers.

In 1999, he began attempting to buy a stake in the Dundee football club, ostensibly because his son Milan took a liking to it while studying at Gordonstoun School. Last year, he gained a seat on the club's board.

The Dundee manoeuverings led British journalists to detail a string of shady dealings, including the New Zealand link. Di Stefano responded with denials. A local newspaper commenting on the Dundee directorship, Scotland on Sunday, said: "Di Stefano and his money may be given the red-carpet treatment at Dundee, but he is not so welcome in several other parts of the world. He has been banned from entering New Zealand".

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