Berlusconi's ally in Sicily investigated for Mafia links

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi may be out of trouble thanks to his new immunity law, but on the eve of Italy assuming the European Union presidency, a close political ally in Sicily is being investigated on suspicion of links to the Mafia.

Salvatore Cuffaro was elected president of the Sicily region in 2001, part of Mr Berlusconi's sensational (and inevitably suspicious) clean sweep of the island, when his party, Forza Italia, won all 61 of its parliamentary seats.

A beaming radiologist of 45, nicknamed Vasa Vasa ("Kiss Kiss") for the way he greets all and sundry, Mr Cuffaro won the regional presidency by a landslide on 24 June 2001, trouncing his closest rival by more than 20 percentage points. But now he has been required to attend Palermo's Palace of Justice on 1 July, to answer the prosecutor's questions.

The scandal has been a long time coming: because of the power of Mr Berlusconi and his allies, in Sicily and the country at large, Mr Cuffaro's summons has been repeatedly postponed. But the evidence linking the president to the Mob is reported to be too strong to be ignored indefinitely.

Explaining the summons, Piero Grasso, the Palermo Prosecutor, said tersely: "The Mafia exists within the system of power." Mr Cuffaro said: "If I have betrayed the faith of the Sicilians, I deserve to spend the rest of my days in jail. If, however, as I am convinced, the deceit originates with somebody else, I demand that they answer for it in front of the people of Sicily as soon as possible." He refused to resign, saying that Mr Berlusconi had told him to stick to his post.

It is alleged, among other things, that the Mafia helped to elect Mr Cuffaro, that the posts of doctors and administrators in Sicily's hospitals have been distributed as political favours to supporters, and that the island's planning law was modified to enable a megastore to be built in a Mafia boss's backyard.

Mr Cuffaro came under suspicion when a jailed mobster called Giuseppe Guttadauro mentioned his name half a dozen times in tapped telephone conversations.

A medical doctor, Guttadauro is believed to be a lieutenant of Bernardo Provenzano, a Mob boss who has been on the run from the law for 40 years. As a professional man, he is said to be an important link between the Cosa Nostra and politicians.

” A European Parliament leader said yesterday that Italy was not ready for the EU presidency, saying if it were an EU candidate it would be kept outside and told to better its ways.

Graham Watson, the leader of the European Parliament's Liberal Democrats, also said that Europe was "astonished" at how Mr Berlusconi had changed the law to get out of a corruption trial in Italy. Berlusconi has been standing trial in Milan on corruption charges stemming from a business deal in the 1980s, before he went into politics.