Berlusconi braced for verdict over ally's 'Mafia links'

Italian PM's reputation set to suffer if his right-hand man is jailed for alleged connection to gangsters

Italy was yesterday tensely awaiting the outcome of a trial which could send Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-hand man to jail for 11 years.

Marcello Dell'Utri, a 68-year-old politician from Palermo in Sicily, has been a close friend of Mr Berlusconi since university days, and was the co-founder with him of the media magnate's first political party, Forza Italia. But in a case that was launched by prosecutors 16 years ago, soon after the end of Mr Berlusconi's brief first spell in government, he is accused of having for many years been the media magnate's go-between with the Sicilian Mafia, ensuring his boss's new party received vital support from the mob on the island.

Mr Dell'Utri is appealing the nine-year jail sentence given him at the first trial. But during the appeal the Palermo prosecutors demanded an extra two years' jail, citing what they claimed was further evidence of his guilt.

The encounters of Mr Berlusconi and Mr Dell'Utri with high-ranking Mafia gangsters, and Mr Berlusconi's decision to employ one of them, Vittorio Mangano, as a stable boy at his villa north of Milan, are well documented. What is disputed is what the meetings over the years signify. The defence claims there is no proof they mean anything. The prosecution maintains there is convincing evidence of criminal collusion. Mr Berlusconi has described Mangano as a "hero" for his refusal to give investigators any information about their relationship. The mafioso died in 2000.

Adding to Mr Dell'Utri's woes are recent claims by a new Mafia super-grass, Gaspare Spatuzza, that the Sicilian lawyer-turned-politician was involved in negotiations with the Mafia which culminated in the mob's decision to blow up Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two investigating magistrates who had done more than any before them to break the Mafia. The magistrates were killed in 1992.

Summing up last week, the prosecution made no bones about the trial's importance. "You must take a historic decision," Nino Gatto told the three-man bench, "not only from a judicial point of view but for our country" which could either clarify who is responsible "for having bathed our country in blood", or could "destroy" that possibility. "Power is on trial here," he went on, "power that has tried to distort [the trial] and evade being put on trial."

But Mr Dell'Utri's lawyer disagreed. "Here you don't have to write history but apply the law," Sandro Sammarco retorted tartly. Mr Dell'Utri, who in another Mafia-related case was sentenced to two years' jail for tax fraud, said in an interview published yesterday that the case was built "on fanatical theories, on non-existent theories, on nothing".

While Mr Berlusconi would surely shrug off another guilty verdict as further malicious work by the so-called "red togas" he has long identified as his mortal enemies, the condemnation of his closest colleague would do further damage to his international reputation. Which is why, according to the gossip in Palermo's huge and oppressive Tribunale building, a lot of trouble has been taken to obtain a bench of judges who could be relied on to see that his friend walks away a free man.

So rancorous have these rumours grown that the judges read out a highly unusual statement in court last week. "We are indifferent," they declared, "to media pressure and answer only to the law and our consciences": which gave Sicilian cynics even further grounds for betting that after this 16-year case, which, Mr Dell'Utri says, "has destroyed my life", he would emerge exonerated.

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