'Bribesville' trial ends with stiff sentence

IF ANY of Italy's huge army of corrupt politicians, businessmen, officials, go-betweens and hangers-on had hoped to be let off lightly, they will be far less optimistic now.

The first major trial in Italy's Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandals ended late on Thursday night with a swingeing eight years' jail sentence for Sergio Cusani, a financier who handled some 150bn lire ( pounds 61.2m) worth of bribes from the huge Ferruzzi industrial and foodstuffs empire to political parties.

Cusani, who pocketed substantial amounts himself in the process, also has to pay back almost 168bn lire plus interest to Ferruzzi, pay the court costs and a 16m lire fine.

The sentence, which he will have to serve only if it is confirmed by appeal courts, was one year longer than that requested by Antonio di Pietro, the Milan public prosecutor who has become the hero of the investigations. It was a sign that the courts take the charges - falsifying accounts, violating the law on party financing and illicit appropriation of funds - extremely seriously.

Although Cusani, a Neapolitan aristocrat, was the sole accused, the case became in effect a trial of the old political class. Night after night for six months, the nation had sat riveted in front of its television screens as two former prime ministers - Bettino Craxi and Arnaldo Forlani - seven former cabinet ministers and more than 100 prominent businessmen, politicians and other witnesses were shown giving evidence about - or denying knowledge of - the system which many Italians had suspected but whose dimensions were undreamed of.

The chief characters became household figures - the black- robed Dr di Pietro, gesticulating animatedly as he rattled away at top speed in his broad southern accent; Sergio Spazzali the grey-bearded, gentlemanly chief defence lawyer; Giuseppe Tarantola, the calm, white-haired president of the court; and Cusani himself, gaunt, silent, looking impassively down his long thin nose at the whole business.

In a sense he was not the only one convicted. The court found that Mr Craxi had taken a bribe of over 3bn lire, that Cusani had delivered another 1bn to the former Communist Party, and that a further 200m had gone to the Northern League.

Mr Craxi's lawyer, Salvatore Lo Giudice, protested sharply, saying that it amounted to 'prior judgment on offences which Bettino Craxi has not committed and which he no longer has the right to demonstrate are unfounded'. This trial will be followed by innumerable others - including many against Mr Craxi and other much bigger figures than Mr Cusani - but it is unlikely that they will have quite the same impact.

The magistrates fear that once the full brunt of the Tangentopoli prosecutions reaches the courts, Italy's painfully slow judicial system in the cities could be paralysed.

That prosecuting a corrupt political class can still be a dangerous business was brought home shortly before the sentence was announced when Dr Di Pietro's policeman son, Cristiano, who was on duty in the court, found a small bomb under a bench outside the courtroom.

The building was cleared and the bomb was found to be real, but not primed. 'It was a warning to me,' said Dr Di Pietro. 'Someone was saying 'that's enough.'

Meanwhile a new political order is still in the making. Prime minister-designate Silvio Berlusconi was optimistic yesterday that he would quickly form a government with neo-Fascist and federalist allies, despite skirmishes over the key job of interior minister.

MILAN - Italian magistrates asked yesterday that Mr Berlusconi's brother and 29 others, including the former government leader, Bettino Craxi, be brought to trial on corruption charges, Reuter reports. The request followed an inquiry into alleged bribes paid on property deals with Italy's biggest savings bank, Cariplo.