'Mafia chief' says he is just a poor farmer

A MASSIVE security screen surrounded Salvatore 'Toto' Riina, alleged boss of all the bosses of the Sicilian Mafia, as he appeared in court yesterday for the first time since his capture in January. Riina declared that he was simply 'a poor farmer' and claimed 'I don't know what Cosa Nostra is'.

He had been flown by helicopter in great secrecy on Saturday from the relative security of a Rome prison to Palermo's Ucciardone jail - so notorious for its laxity and corruption that the press has dubbed it 'the Mafia's Grand Hotel'. Knowing that he could easily take charge of the Mafia again from his cell, or alternatively get poison in his coffee, the authorities had prepared him a special maximum-security cell.

His cage in the large dock in the prison's high-security 'bunker' courtroom used for big Mafia trials was surrounded by bullet- proof glass. When he was let out to be questioned for 50 minutes, he was flanked throughout by six carabinieri and two soldiers.

Armoured military and police vehicles guarded the entrances to the court. The prison has been sandbagged, guarded and patrolled since last year, when the government began to take the Mafia threat seriously.

The authorities had been reluctant to move Riina to the Ucciardone, especially since several pentiti, or supergrasses, had described how Mafia bosses ran their clans and ordered murders with ease from the prison, where the could do virtually what they liked. Other bosses, killers, even people wanted by the police, could come and go at will, they said.

The Mafia had 'bought' some of the staff. 'It wasn't a question of money,' said Gaspare Mutolo, a one-time aide of Riina's. 'Sometimes an expensive gift, a gold watch, was enough.' Bosses would wear expensive silk pyjamas and celebrate important events with caviare and champagne. Magistrates are now investigating.

Riina, who wore the green cashmere jacket, open-necked shirt and flannel trousers he was arrested in, not only did not know what Cosa Nostra (another term for the Mafia) was, he claimed he did not know his fellow-accused in the dock. They are allegedly half the Mafia's 'cupola' or government with whom he had allegedly plotted the assassinations of a President of Sicily, Piersanti Mattarella, and two other politicians.

He also claimed not to know most of the pentiti who had described him as 'La Belva', the wild animal, who ruthlessly ordered hundreds of murders, including the magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino; nor did he know Baldassare di Maggio, his former driver, who had betrayed him and caused his arrest.

The 23 years he was a wanted man were spent, not running the Mafia and its vast drug and arms- smuggling operations, but working on building sites for pounds 136 a week, he claimed.

'All these years no one looked for me, no one stopped me, no one said anything to me.' He was not the person they thought he was at all. 'I am a poor illiterate . . . just a poor farmer . . . all home, work, family and church, as they say in our parts.'

It was the classical Mafioso's defence: deny everything.