A self-styled Italian lawyer who went to school in Wollaston and became known as the Devil’s Advocate told today of his links to Robert Mugabe, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and his “friendship” with the daughter of Slobodan Milosevic.
Giovanni di Stefano said the late Yugoslav president allowed him to stay in his home, provided him with an honorary doctorate of law from Belgrade’s university and made him a Yugoslav citizen.
During this time he struck up a relationship with Milosevic’s daughter.
He said the former leader, who died before his trial for war crimes concluded, invited him to stay in 1993.
“Slobodan Milosevic liked me very, very much,” he told Southwark Crown Court.
“I enjoyed, shall we say, a friendship with his daughter.”
Di Stefano, 57, who earned his Devil’s Advocate nickname for taking on “unwinnable” cases, is accused of tricking people into thinking he was a bona fide legal professional, when in fact he was not a qualified lawyer.
He told the court Milosevic had given him a “doctorate of law” simply because he had asked.
The man also introduced him to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1998 and claimed he was present when UN inspectors went into the country looking for weapons of mass destruction.
That same year, he was also introduced to bin Laden, he told the court.
“He was at the al-Rashid hotel, dressed in western... It was only a 10-minute meeting,” he said.
Asked if he had any dealings with Mugabe during his career, he replied: “Of course, yes, I knew him - know him.”
He said the pair initially met in Rome.
“He was shopping with his wife,” he told the court.
“The last time (we met) was a conference.”
Questioned over the precise nature of their relationship, he said there were “money transfers” made to Zimbabwe, adding: “There were transactions with the Mugabe regime.”
Earlier, the court heard di Stefano, 57, served time in prison, in one case after going on a spending-spree with a credit card stolen from his father in the late 1970s.
In 1984, he found himself in “more serious trouble” and was convicted at the Old Bailey on three conspiracy charges, the jury was told.
The 57-year-old, originally from central Italy, now faces 25 charges including deception, fraud and money laundering between 2001 and 2011.
He today accepted he was not qualified to practice as a lawyer but said he did not believe he was doing anything wrong at the time.
Leonard Smith QC, defending, asked: “Having heard all the evidence in this case, having thought about matters, do you accept now that you were not in fact qualified to provide these legal services during the indictment period?”
He replied: “Yes, but that is not what I thought.”
He added: “During that period, and even today, I honestly believe that I can advise and provide legal services to anyone that seeks my assistance.
“I accept, upon advice, everything that’s been said subsequently.
“At the time, then, even now, I have difficulty in accepting that I can’t because I am a lawyer.
“I am learned in the law, have a hell of a lot of experience and I don’t think anyone can question my competency there and that’s what I honestly believe.”
Asked if he ever described himself as a barrister or solicitor, he said: “Never.”
He accepted he relied upon “star-studded” legal teams to help him fight his high-profile cases, telling jurors: “I have to protect my clients in case I don’t know something or miss something and that’s an excellent way of ensuring that the client is protected and boy, was I right, we got some great results.”
The court has heard how di Stefano was born in the small town of Petrella Tifernina in central Italy, but moved to the UK as a boy and went to school in Wollaston.
He took an interest in the law after he was jailed following the credit card spree.
He conceded he felt “aggrieved” and “hard done by” after he was imprisoned for longer than his older co-defendant owing to an “incompetent barrister” who, he claimed, failed to advise him properly.
After his release, he devoted much of his time to attending lectures on the law while working at the University of Cambridge’s physiology department as a research technician, he told jurors.
Di Stefano, of North Stream, Marshside, Canterbury in Kent, denies nine counts of obtaining a money transfer by deception, eight counts of fraud, three counts of acquiring criminal property, two counts of using a false instrument, one count of attempting to obtain a money transfer by deception, one count of obtaining property by deception and one count of using criminal property.
The trial was adjourned until tomorrow.