Mafia boss threatens politicians from the dock

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SILVIO BERLUSCONI, the Prime Minister, yesterday rejected threats and demands made in court by Salvatore ('Toto') Riina, the Mafia 'boss of all bosses', and an apparent bid for a modus vivendi between the Mafia and his new right-wing government.

'No serious government gears its actions according to threats and red herrings from a recognised chief of organised crime', he said.

Mr Riina sent shock waves through the country on Wednesday with televised remarks to journalists in a courtroom in Reggio Calabria, where he is on trial for the murder of an anti-Mafia magistrate. The seemingly casual remarks held chilling messages.

'Journalists have got to write that the law on 'pentiti' (Mafia turncoats) has got to be abolished because they are paid and manipulated and do what they are told. They are paid to invent things.'

He named three of the Mafia's formidable enemies: Giancarlo Caselli, chief public prosecutor in Palermo and head of investigations into the Mafia, Luciano Violante, a respected former chairman of the parliamentary anti-Mafia committee and Professor Pino Arlacchi, Italy's most authoritive expert on the Mafia and now an MP. The latter two are members of the ex-Communist PDS.

'They are Communists who are pursuing certain aims', Mr Riina declared. 'I think the government should defend itself from the attacks of the Communists.'

His public naming of the three men, according to Tommaso Buscetta, Italy's most prominent 'pentito', was a 'death sentence' - an order to his men to assassinate them. Mr Berlusconi expressed the government's 'full solidarity' with the three.

He announced that security measures around them - already tight - had been stepped up. The implication of Mr Riini's remarks was chilling. Mr Berlusconi had come to power after a virulently anti-'Communist' campaign. Mr Riina's attack on the 'Communists', Professor Arlacchi told the Corriere della Sera, was 'a signal to the government forces that the Mafia and the government have the same enemies.'

His demand for an end to Italy's 'pentiti', whereby turncoats get reduced sentences and are paid while they live under assumed identities and police protection, coincides with criticism from the right-wing political majority.

They argue that 'pentiti' can lie, and suspect they are used for political ends. The Justice Minister, Alfredo Biondi, who had also expressed doubts, insisted yesterday that the law will remain, and be 'strengthened and refined.' There can be 'no yielding' to the Mafia, he said.

The 'pentiti' - there are now around 700 - have been essential to the recent successes against the Mafia. They enabled investigators to track the complicity between the Mafia and the old political class, find out how the Mafia worked, jail dangerous bosses and bring hundreds of members to justice. Mr Riina's strategy since his arrest has been to discredit the feared 'pentiti' and get the law scrapped.

Mr Berlusconi's election campaign virtually ignored the Mafia. His Forza Italia was successful in Sicily where the organisation can move many votes.