ROME -- "She's a nice girl," says her mother of Silvia Baraldini, "it's only her politics that is bad."

Of course, says Maria Dolores "Dolly" Baraldini, "she should get something for what she did, but not 43 years."

Dolly Baraldini is the antithesis of the stereotypical Italian Mama -- she is slim and chic and understated. And she is bewildered at how her life turned out. One daughter, Silvia, is serving 43 years in a U.S. prison for terrorist activity; the other, Marina, was killed a year ago in a plane over Africa, blown up by still-unidentified terrorists.

Dolly Baraldini spent about eight years in America with her diplomat husband while her daughters were teenagers. She thinks Silvia's turning point came when her daughter, who had been enrolled in Marymount, a Catholic college for women, switched at the last minute to the University of Wisconsin, where she fell in among advocates of violent struggle against war and prejudice.

Marina, a scholarship graduate of the University of Chicago and Fletcher School of Diplomacy, a prodigious linguist and dedicated international civil servant, was just as determined to change the world, but by other means. She worked for the European Economic Commission, and at the time of her death was on a mission of mercy to Africa -- the founding of an AIDS hospital.

The daughters had "huge fights," according to their mother, but they liked each other, and when Silvia was jailed for two years in a Women's High Security Unit in Lexington, Ky. -- where the treatment, according to Amnesty International, was "cruel, inhuman and degrading" -- Marina joined a public campaign for her sister's transfer to Italy. Federal Judge Barrington D. Parker said conditions at the underground facility, where prisoners were constantly awakened and searched, violated constitutional rights. The government appealed and won, but soon closed the unit "voluntarily."

While in Lexington, Silvia developed acute gynecological symptoms. She says the prison authorities delayed diagnosis for months. The Bureau of Prisons insists officials took timely notice. Finally, Silvia was operated on for uterine cancer at a prison in Minnesota.

Her treatment at Lexington hardened her, says her Brooklyn lawyer, Elizabeth Fink, who specializes in radical causes. The free-floating anger at the system, which infused the '60s, hardened into permanent, defiant rage.

Why should anyone be concerned about a hard-nosed, unrepentant, 48-year-old representative of "armed struggle"? Silvia Baraldini has become an issue between Italy and the United States. Italy, which never willfully offends Washington, is exercised over her case. Her illness, the plight of her widowed mother, the sentence's severity -- for someone who "never held a gun and has no blood on her hands" -- constitutes injustice.

One country's hard-core terrorist is another's "political prisoner." Italians are convinced that Silvia Baraldini is being punished for her views and her attitude. A Justice Department spokesman admits that her "unrepentance" is "a problem" -- although he concedes it is not a crime.

What an American has trouble grasping is the breadth of sympathy for a woman who was convicted (under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, statute) of conspiring to participate in a jailbreak, in a bank robbery, which never happened, and other violent events of the late '60s and '70s. Lucio Manisco, the U.S. correspondent of RAI 3, the Italian television network, has recounted her story in a riveting 21-minute documentary. The Communists first took up her cause.

Now, sympathy is universal. President Francesco Cossiga and Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti have spoken to President Bush. About 300 members of Parliament have signed a petition for her return under the Strasbourg Convention, an international agreement that lets prisoners to serve out terms in their country of origin. Italy, dreading the return of some 5,000 Mafiosi in U.S. jails, eventually signed because it was the only hope of retrieving Silvia.

The paradox is that no country suffered more from terrorism. Its "years of lead," when magistrates, judges, editors and reporters were abducted, murdered or maimed, took Italy to the brink of chaos. The invasion from within culminated in the 1978 kidnap-murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro.

"But," says a respectable young Roman, "we have a kind of amnesty about terrorism. We feel it is over, we let the repentant ones out of prison. The U.S. wants to make an example of her, but what is the audience?"

The Justice Department, fearing she might get off scot-free at home, is "studying" the year-old Italian request for a transfer. Ambassador Rinaldo Petrignani says her sentence would be "adjusted." Italian criminals get life or 30 years, nothing in between.