Italy mourns loss of new Cincinnatus Heroic judge goes home to farm

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ITALY is in mourning for Antonio Di Pietro. The talk this weekend is of Garibaldi, whose guerrilla tactics inspired thousands in the fight for Italian independence, before he retired, his task unfinished, into self-imposed exile on the islet of Ca prera.It is of Cincinnatus, a hero of ancient Rome who left his plough to rescue the republican army from annihilation and then returned to obscurity, shunning glory but passing into folk legend.

Hyperbole? Maybe. But Mr Di Pietro, the investigating judge who did most to lift the lid on the Tangentopoli corruption scandal, stunned the nation last Tuesday when he announced that he was leaving the judiciary and returning to his family's smallholding in the poor southern region of Molise. ``I'm going back to being a farmer at Montenero di Bisaccia... I'd like a nice red tractor to plough the fields that belonged to my father,'' he said.

These seemed at the time the remarks of a fighter embittered and exhausted by three years spent cleaning up his country's public life. Indeed, the last nine months have proved particularly bitter for the man Italy took to its heart as ``Tonino'', the secular saint of what should have been the new, clean republic.

Before the elections that ushered in the Second Republic last March, Mr Di Pietro spoke of his belief that all Italy needed was "an overhaul of the ruling class''. Instead, the election of the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister rapidly brought Mr Di Pietro and his Milan-based Mani Pulite - ``clean hands'' - team into conflict with the new regime.

As the judges delved into possible corruption at Mr Berlusconi's Fininvest business empire, the government stepped up its harassment. In July, it attempted to remove the judges' powers of pre-trial detention. In October, after hints that investigations were drawing close to the Prime Minister himself, it sent in Justice Ministry inspectors to check for ``procedural irregularities''. The final straw came when, last month, Mr Berlusconi was officially notified of corruption investigations against him. So clear had become the animosity between the two men and so sensitive was the case, that the Supreme Court took it away from the Milan team and transferred it to the judges of nearby Brescia.

Mr Di Pietro's high profile, his popularity - opinion poll after opinion poll showed him to be the best-loved public figure in Italy - had made him a natural target for the fury of a Prime Minister at bay. Mr Berlusconi missed few opportunities to attack``certain judges whose popularity leads them to behave like TV stars''. The battle culminated in an extraordinary open letter to Mr Di Pietro, written by the Prime Minister's spokesman, Giuliano Ferrara, late last week. The letter, which begins ``Dear enemy'', assaults Mr Di Pietro's reputation, accusing him of abusing his power and the press of anointing him with a ``ridiculously, even revoltingly, pious aura''.

The strain of these personal attacks told when, on Tuesday morning, Mr Di Pietro sent his emotional letter of resignation to Francesco Saverio Borrelli, the chief Milan public prosecutor.

``Whatever I do, my duties as a magistrate seem to be interpreted as a personal competition,'' he said. ``Numerous recent demonstrations have viciously personalised my role to a point where my each and every judicial action is interpreted as for or against someone.''

On Friday, three days after Mr Di Pietro's resignation, Mr Berlusconi finally announced that he would meet Milan's Mani Pulite magistrates next Tuesday to be questioned about corruption allegations.

On the same day, Mr Di Pietro had a surprise meeting with the Italian President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, at the Quirinale presidential palace. It is believed the President asked Mr Di Pietro to stay on, but was unable to persuade him to change his mind.

After three years in the palazzo dei veleni - the palace of poisons, as the judiciary has often been called - rural retirement, perhaps another book commission, must seem attractive. One of the reasons the little judge was so loved was that he truly was a man of the people, in the way that few Italian public figures are. Stocky, with the round face of the farmer's boy that he was, Tonino drew cheers from viewers of the televised Tangentopoli hearings as, in his distinctive Molise accent, gesticulating furiously, he used simple peasant sayings to demolish convoluted defence alibis.

``Here at last was one of us going out to show the bastards they couldn't get away with it any more,'' said Silvana Mastronardi, a student teacher who followed the trials avidly.

Tonino shared the fate of many of his southern compatriots as a young man, travelling to Germany in search of work. He used the money to fund his studies, joined the police force, studied some more, and made it to the judiciary.

So far, the parallel with Cincinnatus holds good. But, unlike his forebear, many would say, Tonino is still needed by his country. At 44, he is also still young. Rumours that he might be just the clean pair of hands needed to steer Italy into a new era of civic respectability have been circulating since last year. Tonino has always strenuously denied them. ``I am a lawyer, not a politician. I have a job to do and I intend to follow it through to the end,'' he said when Mr Berlusconi tried to lure him onside with the offer of the Justice Ministry in his new administration.

Now, of course, this is no longer true. Paradoxically, if he did choose to enter politics, it would almost certainly be on the Right - he is believed to favour the neo-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale, practically the only political party not to have been implicated in Tangentopoli.

And what of Mani Pulite without Mr Di Pietro? His team is more than capable of carrying on the work. The fatal blow may prove to be psychological, rather than technical. As long as Tonino was there, leading the crusade against corruption, the average Italian could believe that the country was being reformed, that the fat cats would get their comeuppance. Now he has gone - if he truly has gone - Italians may conclude that the honesty game is not worth the candle.