Andreotti trial put on hold until after election

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After more than six months of painfully slow progress in the Mafia trial of Giulio Andreotti, Italy's most prominent postwar politician, a Palermo court yesterday decided to scrap the proceedings altogether and start afresh on 15 May because of the prolonged illness of one of the presiding judges.

The decision was an embarrassing setback to what was supposed to be Italy's "trial of the century". It reinforced a growing impression that the charges against Mr Andreotti are so explosive that no court will ever have the courage to reach a verdict.

The trial was rescheduled ostensibly as the result of bad luck. Vincenzina Massa, picked to sit on the president's bench as one of two deputy judges, is suffering from an eye infection and has been involved in a serious car crash. Her absence has halted proceedings since early January.

But the procrastination predated Judge Massa's illness. From the start, hearings took place only every fortnight, and focused mostly on points of procedure. Mr Andreotti, who is accused of being Cosa Nostra's political godfather in Rome, says he wants to clear his name as quickly as possible. But even the most optimistic forecasts suggest he will have to wait until the end of the decade for a final verdict, by which time he will be over 80.

The man who remained in government uninterrupted for 46 years and served as prime minister seven times also faces a second trial, due to start today, for the murder of an investigative journalist, Mino Pecorelli, in 1979. But this trial also is expected to be postponed as soon as it opens because one of Mr Andreotti's co-defendants, a former senior mafioso turned informant, Gaetano Badalamenti, says he is needed for the next few weeks as a witness at other trials in the United States.

The growing impression among Mafia experts is that both prosecutors and witnesses are waiting until after Italy's general election on 21 April to see whether the political climate, always a crucial factor in a country where organised crime and the state have formed unholy alliances in the past, will permit them to act as freely as they would wish.

A victory for the centre-right, whose leader, Silvio Berlusconi, has declared war on large swathes of the Italian magistrature in retaliation for corruption charges brought against him in Milan, is likely to weaken the judiciary.

This, in turn, may unnerve Mafia informants who need to be sure their testimony will stick. Otherwise they risk losing their lives and those of their families in revenge killings.

A victory for the centre-left, on the other hand, could strengthen the hand of the prosecutors and breathe new life into both trials against Mr Andreotti. But only if it is accompanied by a vigorous anti-Mafia policy in Sicily and the rest of southern Italy.

Tension over the issue has been illustrated this week by a political row over another Mafia trial, in which a former police chief of Palermo, later promoted to a senior position in the secret services, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for collusion with Cosa Nostra last weekend.

Berlusconi supporters, showing scant respect for the independence of the judiciary, denounced the sentence as a witch-hunt. The head of the parliamentary anti-Mafia commission, a Berlusconi acolyte, Tiziana Parenti, said: "These are judgements against history, typical of Nazi regimes." The Palermo prosecutor's office described this accusation as "gravely offensive".