Berlusconi forced to reinstate sacked opponent of Mafia

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The Italian government has been forced to reinstate a popular anti-mafia campaigner days after sacking him as the state commissioner to fight usury and protection rackets.

Tano Grasso, who spear-headed the first revolt by Sicilian businessmen against paying the "pizzo" or protection money, was brusquely replaced last week. The reason given was that Mr Grasso was appointed by the previous centre-left government.

A barrage of criticism from the opposition, the media and leading figures in the anti-mafia movement, and a peaceful protest by anti-racket associations from around Italy in Rome yesterday, have led to a government U-turn.

In a compromise solution, Mr Grasso will remain as commissioner until his term expires in 2003, alongside the new appointee.

Enzo Mana, a bookshop owner who was among those protesting outside the Interior Ministry, said: "Tano Grasso is not just any old official, he's the man who defied Cosa Nostra when they began threatening his shoe business, and encouraged other entrepreneurs to unite in defiance. Removing him means taking away a reference point for those who are intimidated."

A government fund for the victims of rackets and loan sharking was set up in the early 90s but bureaucratic obstacles meant it did not work properly. With Mr Grasso's input that has changed and the fund has awarded 40 billion Italian lire (£13m) to victims. The number of police reports of extortion and usury rose by 20 per cent in the first quarter of 2001.

Mr Grasso's sacking came amid growing criticism from the opposition that Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, is making overtures to the Mob. Legislation before parliament on the re-entry of illegally exported capital will allow the Mafia to bring back laundered cash anonymously, paying a mere 2.5 per cent fine. And the new controversial law on international judicial co-operation now makes it harder for Italian magistrates to acquire evidence from abroad.