Italy was jolted out of summer vacation doldrums this week by a bitter controversy over a hero's welcome that leading leftist politicians gave to Silvia Baraldini, a convicted felon who returned after 17 years' imprisonment in the United States for complicity in a string of politically motivated crimes.

Baraldini was jailed in connection with robberies carried out by political radicals, as well as a prison breakout. One of the robberies, of a Brink's armored car near Nyack, N.Y., in 1981, resulted in the deaths of two policemen and a security guard.

She was brought to Rome on an Italian government jet on Wednesday after her release from a federal prison in Danbury, Conn. Justice Minister Oliviero Diliberto, a member of a Communist faction in the cabinet, escorted Baraldini's mother to Ciampino airport for the arrival. Left-wing leaders tossed flowers and waved hammer-and-sickle flags during a rally at Rebibbia prison, where Baraldini was to continue her internment.

The greeting outraged opposition center and right-wing politicians along with some Italian jurists who saw in the welcome an official blessing of her past by the government of Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema. D'Alema is a former Communist whose ruling coalition is buttressed by a splinter group known as the Party of Italian Communists.

Baraldini's case had long been a cause celebre among Italian leftists, who regard her as a political martyr and victim of abuse by U.S. prison officials. Her homecoming followed an appeal D'Alema made to President Clinton last spring. The Italians pledged she would remain in jail at least until 2008, the earliest date she would have been eligible for parole had she continued serving her 43-year sentence in the United States.

On the surface, the deal seemed like a simple prisoner transfer and goodwill gesture between close allies. However, in the smoldering underbrush of Italian politics, nothing is so clear-cut. Baraldini's return--or more precisely, the welcome she received--stimulated a bitter left-right debate about Italy's recent past and the nature of its present government.

Top leftists who make up part of D'Alema's ruling coalition treated Baraldini as an idol. After meeting with her Wednesday, Armando Cossuta, who heads the Italian Communists, said, "I hugged her with joy and intense emotion," and he asserted that jail in Italy would surely be more humane than in the United States.

Opposition politicians and some jurists charged that use of the official plane and the justice minister's airport appearance represented undue political support for Baraldini. "One thing is humanitarian reasoning, which we all share and appreciate, another thing is to make a prisoner into a hero," said Claudio Castelli, vice president of the National Magistrates Association.

The rightists predicted that Baraldini will wiggle out of her prison sentence, given Italy's history of letting everyone from Nazi war criminals to Mafia bosses go free. One opposition leader said the treatment awarded Baraldini was to "spit in the face" of terror victims.

At issue is the moral high ground in Italian politics of the past 30 years, some of which were torn by political violence. For the right, and many anti-terrorist prosecutors, Italian radicals who turned to violence abroad, or at home during the so-called Years of Lead terror campaign in the 1970s, ought not be forgiven. Politicians who support them are considered moral accomplices.

For Communists in and out of government, ideals expressed by such radicals--in Baraldini's case, one who declared herself opposed to American social injustice--merit sympathy. The radicals were right, they say, even if their tactics were wrong.

The D'Alema government tried to straddle the divide. D'Alema has presented his government as herald of a "normal" Italy in which outdated ideological differences do not define every move. He dismissed charges that the government's help for Baraldini made her past its own. He characterized Baraldini's arrival as inconsequential.

D'Alema described Diliberto's trip to the airport as simply a courtesy extended to Baraldini's aging mother. In Italy, there is no more powerful spin than expressing support for the institution of la mamma.

"I don't understand why this should create so much debate," D'Alema said.

An aide to D'Alema argued that Baraldini's repatriation was a decade-long goal of successive Italian governments, of which only the present one was leftist-led. Rapport between D'Alema and Clinton, who both moved to the center during their political careers, paved the way for her release, he added.

Diliberto guaranteed that Baraldini would serve the next nine years in jail, as agreed with the United States. "The commitment assumed personally by me and by the Italian government with the United States is a serious thing," he said.

During a jail house news conference, Baraldini, 51, said she agreed to the American conditions for her return to Italy so she could be near her mother. But she declined to express remorse for her radical history. "I have never repented for what I have done in the past," Italian newspapers quoted her as saying.

She was tied to a group of Black Panthers, aided the escape from jail of a Panther member convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper, and in 1981 was involved in the Brink's robbery. She was convicted on conspiracy and racketeering charges.

A 40-year sentence was extended by three years when she refused to testify to a grand jury investigating 40 New York City bombings. The grand jury was looking into a Puerto Rican independence group called the Armed Forces of National Liberation. Baraldini and another defendant contended that the grand jury was a "political tool" of the government with which they would not collaborate.