Andreotti faces trial over `Mafia links'

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The Independent Online
Did Giulio Andreotti, the grand old man of post-war Italian politics, kiss the most powerful of Sicily's Mafia bosses one afternoon in Palermo in 1987? Was he head of a murky political network that relied on organised crime to win votes and carry out itsdirty work in Sicily?

Such questions will be uppermost in the minds of the Palermo court which will consider today whether or not to send the 74-year-old Christian Democrat, 21 times a minister and seven times prime minister, for trial on charges of criminal association with the Mafia.

An avalanche of new evidence against Mr Andreotti has emerged this week with the publication of a damning magistrates' report of more than 2,000 pages. The former prime minister's denials and protestations are dismantled one by one, and new evidence emerges of private flights to Sicily scrubbed from the air register, bodyguards mysteriously dismissed for entire afternoons and witnesses whose memories were "refreshed" to ensure their stories tallied.

Mr Andreotti, who was for years suspected of being the Mafia's best friend in politics but never pinned down, has claimed all along that he had no idea of the links nurtured between his party's point-man in Sicily, the late Salvo Lima, and key figures inthe island underworld. He has denounced the case against him as a plot orchestrated by everyone from the Mafia to the FBI.

The prosecutors clearly do not believe him, saying that to be credible he would have to be "one of the least-well informed citizens in Italy". They have even titled one chapter in their report "The false statements of the defendant".

The most sensational allegation, made by the Mafia informant Baldassare Di Maggio, is that Mr Andreotti met the Mafia's capo dei capi, Toto Riina, in September 1987 while on a visit to Palermo and kissed him as a mark of profound respect. On the day in question, Mr Andreotti's bodyguards were dismissed for several hours and a public appointment in the city postponed without explanation.

Riina, who was on the run for years and almost certainly protected by his powerful friends, is now serving multiple life sentences for murder and other Mafia-related offences. According to the prosecutors, "Andreotti should remember that he and Riina were, remain and will always be made of the same stuff."

Another new piece of evidence from an FBI officer, Richard Martin, who has reported a conversation with the first man to break the Mafia's rigid code of silence and co-operate with the authorities, Tommaso Buscetta. Buscetta told him in 1985: "To make you understand how difficult it is to talk about this subject, I will give just one name, Giulio Andreotti."

Mr Andreotti's lawyers have pointed to the unreliability of most of the witnesses and argue the case is too hot to be heard in Palermo and should be transferred to Rome. They will probably succeed in postponing the decision on his possible trial with theargument that they need more time to digest the new evidence. But the days when the wriggly, ever-shrewd Mr Andreotti could simply shrug off accusations of Mafia collusion look like they are finally over.