Graft suspect dies in jail: Row after former head of Italian state company leaves 10 suicide notes

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ITALY'S corruption investigations received a jolt yesterday when one of the most prominent suspects, Gabriele Cagliari, former chief of the ENI state petrochemicals giant, was found dead in his cell in Milan's San Vittore prison. Ten suicide notes were found and Giovanni Conso, the Justice Minister, told parliament last night that Mr Cagliari had killed himself, although complete confirmation was awaiting the results of an autopsy.

Mr Cagliari would thus be at least the 9th suspect in Italy's corruption scandals to commit suicide and the first to do so in jail. His death immediately reignited a passionate controversy over the investigating magistrates' legal powers to keep people in preventive detention in Italy's overcrowded jails while they are being questioned.

Mr Cagliari, hit by three separate preventive detention orders, had been in jail longer than most: 133 days. The magistrates had repeatedly refused demands for his release but recently, his lawyer said, the investigating magistrate, Fabio de Pasquale, had given him to understand he would be free soon. Then, three days ago, although the lawyer, Vittorio d'Aiello, warned of grave psychological repercussions if he were refused, he once again was denied permission to leave.

According to the administration at San Vittore where he, like many VIP suspects, was held, he was alone in the cell at the time and was found by a guard, collapsed in the cell toilet with a plastic bag around his head, tied at the neck.

Several letters were found, one to his family, to be published in the Milan newspaper Il Giorno today, in which he explained what he called his 'act of rebellion' and said that the legal system was designed 'to annihilate and destroy people, not to do justice'. Others were addressed to his lawyer and to his cellmates, intended to clear them of any suspicion.

Mr Cagliari, a professional manager close to the disgraced former prime minister Bettino Craxi, was under investigation for corruption, violating laws on party financing, embezzlement and false declarations. There were allegations of siphoning vast sums of money from business operations to the Christian Democrats and Socialists.

The new governor of the Bank of Italy told MPs yesterday that corruption had distorted market forces and had cost the country thousands of millions of pounds.

The tragedy fuelled the bitterness of those in the old, discredited parties at what Mr Craxi called the 'violence' of justice, while Gianfranco Miglio, a leading member of the Northern League, said there was no reason to feel sorry for Cagliari. The incident could lead to a serious rethinking of the investigative processes.

The question was raised only recently by President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro who said that preventive detention should be 'the exception, not the rule' and that justice should be speeded up. Magistrates have pointed out that preventive detention is designed not as a 'torture' to make people talk - although it has had that effect - but to prevent them tampering with the evidence or fleeing abroad. This has repeatedly happened and is still a danger.

A fundamental problem, however, is the extreme slowness of the Italian justice system at every stage. To change this would require not only a thorough reform of procedures but probably many more staff - something that cannot happen very quickly.

(Photograph omitted)