`Clean Hands' banks up the evidence against Berlusconi

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The Independent Online

in Milan

There is an atmosphere of nervous excitement these days around Milan's Palace of Justice. Although the "Clean Hands" pool of anti-corruption magistrates has lost its star, Antonio Di Pietro, the rest of the team is amassing a mountain of documentary evidence exposing a web of suspect financing within Silvio Berlusconi's Fininvest business empire.

There is talk that the former prime minister may soon face formal charges far more serious than the comparatively minor allegation of tax bribery which precipitated his fall from power last year. "We are going ahead very rapidly," a Clean Hands magistrate, Gherardo Colombo, said. He could not identify Fininvest or any other case by name but made clear he and his colleagues were uncovering as much damning material as ever.

Two weeks ago the names of Mr Berlusconi, his brother and a tax adviser were put on a list of new investigations. Leaks from the Palace of Justice suggested magistrates are seeking to establish a link between the three men and an alleged transfer of several billion lire through secret Swiss bank accounts to pay for the transfer of a soccer player to Mr Berlusconi's club, Milan.

Since then, say judicial sources, magistrates have tracked down more than 20 anonymous bank books they believe Fininvest officials used to set up secret slush funds.

The findings have alarmed Mr Berlusconi's allies, prompting denials and attacks on the judiciary and media. "Those bank books belong to the Berlusconi family and tax has been paid regularly on all deposits," Fininvest's chairman, Fedele Confalonieri, said. "The real news is that a witch-hunt has started up again against Fininvest.'' Mr Colombo rejected the suggestion that specific individuals had been targeted. "Obviously, nobody likes being put under investigation. But we aren't out to get anyone. We respect absolutely our duty to investigate everything.''

That does not convince Mr Berlusconi's allies and in the past few days there has been talk of a qualified amnesty to end "Clean Hands" altogether and save the country from "political interference" by the judiciary. A date has even been proposed: 25 April, the 50th anniversary of Italy's liberation at the end of the Second World War. Gianfranco Fini, leader of the far-right National Alliance, said he would be in favour of an amnesty on three conditions: that certain major crimes against the state remained punishable, that money stolen was returned and that those already convicted would be banned from public life.

Mr Fini appears to have found an ally of sorts in a pool magistrate, Gerardo D'Ambrosio, who also supports a qualified amnesty but is more circumspect about which crimes should be "minor" enough to warrant a pardon. Mr D'Ambrosio added a fourth condition: effective legislation to stop corruption breaking out all over again.

The pool appears split on the issue, since Mr Colombo for one believes an amnesty would be disastrous. "It is the worst imaginable solution, since it would stop us discovering any more. If we don't find out everything, public life will be open to formidable forms of blackmail. I am in favour of any proposal to help this investigation, but on condition that it brings facts into the open and does not bury them."

Mr Colombo favours a truce, in which wrongdoers would be invited to confess, tell what they know and return stolen money in exchange for their freedom. Anyone who failed to come forward and was later caught would receive stiffer punishment.

Mr Colombo could not say so, but an amnesty could pull the plug on investigations into Mr Berlusconi. The magistrates have public opinion behind them, as they discovered in summer, when they forced a government U-turn on a previous amnesty proposal, but are under no illusions about the determination of the politicians who have chosen to attack them.

"It seems our opinions are viewed with irritation rather than being welcomed," Mr Colombo said. "As far as we are concerned, Clean Hands will go on indefinitely. We shall see.''