Italian justice: The prince and the prostitutes

His aristocratic family dismiss him as a simpleton. But to a provincial prosecutor pursuing the erstwhile heir to the Italian throne, he is the key figure at the centre of a squalid tangle of vice and greed. Peter Popham reports from Rome
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The Independent Online

Even for a nation that renounced its monarchy by popular vote 60 years ago,there is a curious frisson involved in seeing the erstwhile heir to the throne locked up in jail. And when the man doing the locking-up is a firebrand prosecutor named Woodcock who was born in Somerset, there is more than a whiff of Cromwell about it.

"Prince" Victor Emmanuel - he uses the title even though they were abolished when Italy became a republic, and was recently addressed as "your highness" on television by one notorious brown nose - has been held in the jail of the city of Potenza, in Italy's deep south, for the best part of a week.

Since his arrest last Friday he has shared a cell four metres square with Gian Nicolino Narducci, a long-time aide who is also under investigation: he has taken the top bunk, as befits a "highness", though on the first night he fell out of it and sustained bruises. He has complained bitterly about having the belt for his trousers confiscated, but by the time Prosecutor Woodcock came to question him on Tuesday he had re-assembled his damaged dignity.

"Everything here is marvellous," he warbled to Mr Woodcock, "the Italian cooking is excellent, also this mineral water they provide, which I find diuretic. And to abstain from alcohol for a spell is a good thing, too..." It is possible that he was being deeply ironical.

Vittorio Emanuele Alberto Carlo Teodoro Umberto Bonifacio Amadeo Damiano Bernardo Gennaro Maria of Savoy, 69, known to Italian monarchists as Vittorio Emanuel IV and to other Italians as plain Mr Savoy, has not been charged with anything. He is not yet on trial.

But Henry John Woodcock, the 39-year-old half-British state prosecutor of Potenza, has been listening in to his telephone conversations and those of his associates for a long time, and believes that there are serious charges to be answered. He believes the former prince is the leader of a criminal gang involved with illegal gambling and prostitution and more.

And late last Friday Mr Savoy was seized, driven "bent double" in the police Fiat Tipo "as if squashed into a suitcase - it was a nightmarish journey," he complained, from his home in Rome to Mr Woodcock's headquarters in Potenza.

In a few days or weeks Mr Savoy will walk out of Potenza jail a free man, once the investigators have squeezed him dry. Only then, and not necessarily even then, will he be charged and brought to trial, a trial which, like nearly all Italian trials, is likely to drag on and on for years: every year the European Court of Human Rights tries to prod Italy into doing something about its painfully tardy legal system. In Italy condemnation often comes before charges are laid; and punishment, too, in the form of public humiliation.

Yet the transcripts of the prosecutor's wiretaps of the prince and his associates that have been filling Italy's daily papers appear to provide startling evidence of guilt. They give a vivid impression of a man, already immensely wealthy but consumed with greed, and using his name and influence to grub money from seedy affairs of every sort, from casinos and video-game slot machines in tax havens to prostitution, and trying to use his influence with the authorities, including the tax police, to insulate himself from attack.

This is the squalid endgame of a dynasty that originated more than 1,000 years ago on what is now the Italian-French border and that became, despite having roots and a culture that were scarcely Italian, the nation's royal rulers. But although Italy was stunned by the news of Mr Savoy's incarceration, it was not particularly surprised to learn what he had allegedly been up to.

For a man routinely dismissed as an idiot, he has enjoyed a successful if chequered business career. Today the family is worth at least €70m (£48m), though a recent article in a business magazine claimed the true figure held in banks and investments in Switzerland and the United States could be as much as €450m. The family's real estate alone is said to be worth €40m.

Victor Emmanuel went into exile with his father, King Umberto I, who sat on the throne for less than a month when he was nine years old. After a spell in Portugal, the family moved to Switzerland where they remained for the rest of their nearly six decades of exile.

Victor Emmanuel made his priorities plain enough when he chose as his wife a Swiss skiing champion of modest origins but the heir of a large biscuit manufacturing fortune. Umberto declined to attend the wedding, and relations within the family went into the deep freeze.

This week the most vitriolic criticism of the prince has come from his sister, Maria Gabriella, from whom he has been estranged for years. "The mess he has ended up in was almost predictable," she told one newspaper. "He is a simpleton, the victim of a wife who is only interested in money."

What is a young prince to do, bereft of duties and titles but endowed with a huge fortune? Selling helicopters to his high and mighty friends was one of the prince's successful projects, from which he went on to become an arms dealer. His wedding to Marina Doria was celebrated both in Las Vegas and Tehran, where the Shah was one of his loyal customers.

But the Savoys were never satisfied with their exile status, and lobbied for decades for the right to return to live in Italy. Popular feeling ran strongly against the monarchy, which was blamed for siding with the Nazis and fleeing from Rome at a crucial point in the war.

King Victor Emmanuel III, the present prince's grandfather, put up no resistance to Mussolini's bellicosity or, later, the race laws which banned Jews from attending school among other things. After the fall and subsequent death of Mussolini, the Savoys became scapegoats for all the evils of the old regime.

The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, backed their right to come home, but even he judged it prudent to reintroduce them to Italy slowly. Their first visit, to Naples, the prince's birthplace in 2003, was a shambles when hundreds of demonstrators dogged their progress, chanting "See Naples and Die!"

But slowly the Italian public seemed to come round to the view that if they really wanted to live in Italy, why shouldn't they after all this time? They swore oaths of loyalty to the republic, renounced their claims to the throne, obtained passports and became minor figures on the fringes of the national life, featured in the gossip magazines but no longer of any real importance.

Emanuele Filiberto, the 24-year-old son and heir, spoke rashly during an early visit of being happy to become king "if the people want it ..." But he too seemed to settle down to milk his name for whatever kitsch commercial value he could gain from it, advertising shoes and pickles and launching a restaurant.

Victor Emmanuel's cousin, Simeone, formerly king, then prime minister of Bulgaria, has also been investigated for alleged corrupt dealings in the same case. Yesterday the Bulgarian authorities announced they had received papers relating to the matter. Last week an Italian newspaper reported allegations that the prince and an Italian associate had funded Simeone's election campaign in return for being awarded a lucrative public tender in Bulgaria.

The prince has been dismissive of the charges. Confronted with evidence that he trousered a bribe of €20,000 to allow a Sicilian businessman, Rocco Migliardi, to run his video-poker gaming machines in Campione d'Italia, an Italian enclave in Switzerland, he replied, "It's ridiculous to think that I would dirty my hands for a mere €20,000, for me that's mere pocket money."

But his bluff denials have yet to win him much support.

The most extraordinary figure in the whole tale is Henry John Woodcock, the prosecutor responsible for Mr Savoy's arrest. "You really are strong," a colleague once told him admiringly, "you know I think that if the Pope came through Potenza you'd have him locked up..."

The son of a British father, a naval officer, and a Neapolitan mother, Mr Woodcock arrived in Potenza to take up the post of public prosecutor in 1999 at the age of 32 and quickly became known as "the cyclone prosecutor". He showed a disdain for the frills of the job, refusing to travel in the official blue Lancia limousine and riding to work instead on his Harley-Davidson - and when his duties required him in Rome, going by coach.

In the past four years, from the regional capital of perhaps the most obscure region in the country, Basilicata, he has launched a series of extraordinarily bold prosecutions, pulling in the directors of a big national oil and insurance companies, allegedly corrupt magistrates.

He rarely speaks to journalists, which means he lacks friends in the media when he needs them (like now), but although counter-attacks have rained on his head - one minister in Berlusconi's government called him "a madman" and the Minister of Justice himself, Roberto Castelli, Mr Woodcocks's ultimate boss, submitted him to a disciplinary inquiry when one investigation netted a close friend of a former president of Italy - so far he has come through it all smiling.

"The inquiries speak for me," he says, "I am serene." And whatever befalls the allegations against Mr Savoy, Henry John Woodcock will have at least a footnote in history: as the man who had the guts to put Victor Emmanuel behind bars.

The kings of Italy and the house of Savoy

Victor Emmanuel II 1820-1878

The son of Charles Albert, Duke of Savoy and King of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel II was the first king of a united Italy. He made peace with Austria after decades of conflict between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and joined Britain and France against Russia in the Crimea.

Umberto I 1844-1900

Helped conclude the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany. Deeply conservative, he favoured colonial expansion and outraged public opinion when he decorated a general who had fired cannon at demonstrators in Milan. He is the only modern Italian king to be assassinated.

Victor Emmanuel III 1869-1947

Considered Italy's most controversial monarch, Victor Emmanuel III was nicknamed "little sabre" thanks to his short stature. He appointed Mussolini Prime Minister in 1922, and his failure to act against the dictator's abuses of power led to his abdication. He died in exile in Egypt.

Umberto II 1904-1983

King of Italy for only a month, Umberto was rejected by a referendum in1946, when Italy became a republic. Nicknamed "Europe's Grandfather", he spent his exile in the Swiss Alps and Portugal. The Italian constitution banned male royal members from setting foot in Italy until 2002.