Berlusconi ally held on Mafia charges

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A senior Palermo politician connected to the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was arrested on Mafia charges yesterday after prosecutors found evidence that he had helped one of Cosa Nostra's most notorious bosses to evade capture for more than four years.

Francesco Musotto, governor of the province of Palermo, was accused of providing housing to Leoluca Bagarella and passing on confidential information from the police. Mr Bagarella, who now faces prosecution for a string of high-profile murders, felt safe enough before his capture last June to drive around Palermo in his own car without protection.

Mr Musotto is the third member of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party to run into legal problems over links with organised crime in the past week, and his arrest looks set to revive accusations that Mr Berlusconi's organisation made a deal with the Mafia to help secure a lightning general election victory in March 1994. Last week, the head of the parliamentary commission on justice, Tiziana Maiolo, and the head of the parliamentary commission on culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, were formally accused of using the Calabrian underworld to get elected in exchange for political favours.

As members of parliament, both are immune from arrest for the moment.

Yesterday, an alarmed Mr Berlusconi, referring directly to these latest cases, appealed to the head of state to ensure that "the criminal justice authorities are not subverted by partisan politics" and accused the country's magistrates of being in cahoots with the left.

Mr Berlusconi has been building up his attacks on the judiciary ahead of his own trial, due to start in January, on corruption charges related to his Fininvest business empire. This week magistrates also formally requested the trial of the head of Fininvest's advertising company, Marcello Dell'Utri, on charges of building up illegal slush funds.

Mr Berlusconi may find that the Mafia-related cases are a minefield he should steer well clear of. During his seven-month tenure as prime minister, he was repeatedly accused of accepting Mafia votes that had previously gone to the Christian Democrat and Socialist parties, and of bringing the parliamentary anti-Mafia effort to a halt. Last January taps on the phone of a mafioso businessman, Pino Mandalari, suggested Mafia links with both Forza Italia and its far-right ally, the National Alliance.