Magistrates decry Amato 'solution'

MILAN magistrates predicted yesterday that a 'political solution' to Italy's corruption scandals would paralyse their investigations. And Carlo Ripa di Meana, the Environment Minister, resigned in protest. A storm of criticism has broken over the fragile government, under whose proposals politicians in jail on suspicion of receiving illegal funds would be released.

The 'solution', announced on Saturday by Giuliano Amato's 'clean' government, was supposed to provide swift justice to avoid clogging the judicial system, and end some of the abuses. Instead, newspapers condemned it as a move to 'wipe the slate clean'. The Milan deputy public prosecutor, Gerardo d'Ambrosio, said the political world 'has decided to absolve itself'. Opposition leaders have appealed to President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro not to sign the measures; if he does, there will be a fierce battle in parliament.

The strongest criticism is of a decree which makes it a mere offence, punishable by a fine, for a politician to receive illegal funds for his party. Until now it was a crime, punishable by jail.

'If Italians are to be reconciled with their institutions, and the economy is to pick up, we must be sure that justice is functioning normally,' Mr Ripa di Meana said yesterday. 'The two conditions cannot be met by the present government. I have therefore resigned.'

And from today the many cases which the Milan, Rome and other prosecutors are investigating or prosecuting must be handed over to prefects, who are government officials and who will administer the fines. Any politicians and others who are in jail on these charges will be released and others will stay free. Many of the politicians, entrepreneurs and go- betweens caught up in the scandals are being prosecuted under this clause of the law on party financing. Others are accused of the more serious crime of corruption, some of both.

The Justice Minister, Giovanni Conso and his colleagues retort that the fine - three times the sum illegally received - and a five-year ban from holding public office, mean transgressors will not get off lightly. But Eugenio Scalfari, editor of La Repubblica, said the illicit funds revealed so far alone amounted to more than one trillion lire ( pounds 500m). Are individual politicians to pay these back? Or the parties which, deprived of their ill- gotten income, are broke?

Strong objections were also raised to a bill allowing those charged with corruption to negotiate a suspended jail sentence in return for confessing all, paying back the money and leaving public life for good. This is seen as unfair to people accused of other crimes who do not have the chance to make such deals and is therefore considered likely to be rejected by the Constitutional Court.

The measures, four decrees and four bills, were drawn up partly in response to a plea by the Milan prosecutors, inundated by work, for a 'political solution'. But yesterday the entire team, headed by Saverio Borelli, the chief public prosecutor, and Antonio Di Pietro, leading the investigations, issued a statement saying its inquiries would be paralysed.

In the statement they said: 'We hope everyone will face up to their political and moral responsibilities before the Italian people.' Mr d'Ambrosio added in an interview: 'With our investigations we reached the danger level for the political system that rules us. And the system could not tolerate this. It will do everything to stop us.'

The floor leader of the Northern League, Marco Formentini, said: 'The interests of the corrupt parties have won; the government has decided to suffocate 'Clean Hands' (the codename of the investigations).'

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