Andreotti faces trial as his immunity slips away: Senators are unmoved by the former prime minister's pleas, writes Patricia Clough in Rome

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GIULIO ANDREOTTI, seven times Italian prime minister, came a large step closer to prosecution for collusion with the Mafia yesterday when a Senate commission voted to lift his parliamentary immunity.

The vote was a sign of the change sweeping through Italy: all but one of the 11 members of the establishment parties which had served in Mr Andreotti's governments abstained, while all 11 opposition members voted for the truth to be established through the normal process of justice.

Mr Andreotti, Western Europe's longest-serving statesman until his semi-retirement last year and now a life senator, had fought desperately in three sessions to retain his immunity, claiming that the Palermo magistrates who want to prosecute him were not to be trusted and the Mafia pentiti who have accused him were carrying out a Mafia plot to destroy him.

The announcement that Mr Andreotti's fellow senators had rejected his plea to block a Sicilian magistrate's inquiry into allegations that he was Cosa Nostra's main political protector elbowed Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the prime minister-designate, out of the spotlight. The full Senate has to ratify the decision, but it seems unlikely to disavow the commission or ignore the mood of the country. The Palermo magistrates have more investigating to do before they can proceed and, since Italian justice is extremely slow, it could be years before a trial begins.

Meanwhile, in another remarkable sign of change, Mr Ciampi, who is governor of the Bank of Italy, was putting together a cabinet, with the aid only of a secretary and a telephone at his home in a quiet suburb of Rome. For the first time in decades, there were no huddles with party secretaries, no haggling over power, posts and programmes, few rumours and almost no information. In parliament, reported Ansa news agency, 'there is an atmosphere of bewildered impotence. Members, even the most authoritative ones, do not know anything. For the first time they feel cut off from the government that is being born, from the possibility of competing for it, but all in all they seem resigned to the inevitable.'

One important piece of news, however, was that Mr Ciampi had offered an undisclosed post to Mario Segni, the victorious leader of the referendum campaign on electoral reform, and was turned down. Mr Segni said he thanked him but replied that 'at this moment my participation would have been possible only in a government which was the direct and immediate product of the spirit of reform'.

Mr Segni softened the rebuff somewhat by saying that if Mr Ciampi's government committed itself to passing a majority-system electoral law and led the country to elections as soon as possible, 'it will have my convinced support'.

Mr Segni had been a candidate to lead the reform government but was vetoed by his old party, the Christian Democrats, which cannot forgive him for leaving after Mafia accusations were raised against Mr Andreotti, saying the party had 'opened its doors to the Mafia'.

Mr Andreotti, commenting yesterday on the commission's vote, suggested darkly that there had been 'organised pressure' on members 'in order to create an atmosphere of intimidation'. He did not say what these were or who might be behind them. He said he had not heard one senator, even his opponents, say that they believed the allegations.

Several pentiti have alleged that Mr Andreotti met and conferred with top Mafia bosses, that he ordered the Mafia to commit two political murders and arranged to have one or more Supreme Court judges pass lenient sentences on Mafia members. Giovanni Pellegrino, chairman of the commission, said it was 'the best decision we could have taken in the interest of the country'. Once such grave allegations were levelled at a politician like Mr Andreotti 'every citizen of this republic has the right to see investigations carried out'.