Italy's '007' fraud trial opens

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The Independent Online
SEVEN leading figures from Italy's secret service went on trial yesterday accused of pocketing around pounds 24m from its covert operations fund.

Charges of embezzlement and conspiracy to commit crimes have been variously laid against Riccardo Malpica, who headed the SISDE, the civilian security service, for four years, his secretary Martilde Martucci - nicknamed 'the Tsarina' for her influence over Mr Malpica - Maurizio Broccoletti, SISDE's former administrative director, and four former senior officials.

Sums ranging from 690 million lire ( pounds 276,000) to L18bn from largely unsupervised funds set up to finance secret informers and undercover activities were found in bank accounts belonging to some of the accused or members of their families. They are alleged to have started businesses with the money or used it for extravagant and mysterious trips abroad - especially to Argentina. The money has since been returned.

One of the accused, Mr Broccoletti, is under arrest and another, Michele Finocchi, is on the run. Four of the accused, including Mr Malpica, failed to turn up for the start of the trial, which was devoted to procedural questions. But Mr Malpica's brother, Giuseppe, told court reporters: 'It is a political trial . . . they obviously wanted to put the First Republic on trial. It is a trial against a ruling class.'

The trial promises to attract much attention, for the '007s', as they are called here, have sought to defend themselves by alleging that a series of former interior ministers, including the outgoing one, Nicola Mancino, and - most sensationally - Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, now President of Italy, also accepted regular and illegal payments from the secret fund to the tune of L100m a month.

When the charges were first made last autumn, Mr Scalfaro, in a dramatic gesture, interrupted the evening's television programmes to denounce what he called a 'shameful and ignoble scandal'.

He spoke of a plot to discredit him and force him to resign, thus hindering the elections which were set to sweep away the old regime.

Since the secret services are widely thought to have been involved in murky political plots over the years, his accusations were readily supported at the time. The Rome public prosecutor, Vittorio Mele, said recently there was no proof to support the allegations against the President, who, in any case, cannot be prosecuted because of his office. Now public opinion, exhausted by scandals, is perhaps more cynical.

A total of around 100 people have been called as witnesses.

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