Outrage and disbelief greet an Italian night of shame: Patricia Clough in Rome on the reaction to Bettino Craxi's escape from prosecution

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The Independent Online
THE NEWS had scarcely faded from television screens when the switchboard at the Chamber of Deputies lit up as if possessed. Those at the President's office, the Senate, party headquarters, newspapers, radio and television stations jammed simultaneously with calls from angry Italians.

'We must do something, the country is collapsing,' a 70-year- old woman cried. 'I am ashamed to be Italian, ashamed to be a carabiniere,' a defender of the law from Sicily protested. 'These people are mad] They're crazy]' gasped a pensioner. Faxes spewed out letter after letter, some scrawled hastily, others in best handwriting or typed, again and again containing the same word: 'Shame, shame, shame.'

Moments earlier, the country had watched speechless, unbelieving as television reporters stammered out the news that they seemed unable fully to grasp. The Chamber of Deputies had voted to prevent Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist prime minister and symbol of the old, disgraced political system, from being prosecuted on charges of corruption and receiving stolen property.

Had the country not voted with an overwhelming majority only a couple of weeks earlier to change the whole system? Had a national outcry not forced the last government to drop plans to abolish prison sentences for thieving politicians? Had not, that morning, a new government led by the Governor of the Bank of Italy been sworn in with the purpose of reforming the system and leading the way to a new, cleaner Italy? On what planet were the deputies living? 'Blind, deaf, suicidal,' said the Corriere della Sera.

Groups of people formed in the streets. A thousand gathered at the Palace of Justice in Milan, where magistrate and national hero Antonio di Pietro had opened the investigations against Craxi, his brother-in-law, his son and his cronies, setting off the juggernaut of scandals that has brought down - or so everyone thought - the political class that misruled the country for decades.

The police moved quickly. Milan bused in 800 cadets as reinforcements. In Rome, large numbers guarded the narrow old streets leading to the Parliament. Huge detachments surrounded the Prime Minister's office next door and the Socialist and Christian Democrat party buildings. The centres of Italian democracy had become fortresses, to be defended against the citizenry.

Next day, from Genoa to Bari, Padua to Catanzaro, angry citizens took to the piazzas to protest. In the Cathedral Square in Milan, where in Mr Craxi's offices many millions of pounds worth of kick-backs allegedly changed hands, people shouted, 'Thieves, give yourselves up.'

In Rome, classfuls of children left their lessons to demonstrate in front of the Prime Minister's office, chanting, 'Mafia, P2, state murders, the Italian people have not forgotten.' Stepping out of the Socialist headquarters, Ugo Intini, faithful mouthpiece for Mr Craxi, had to be rescued by police from crowds shouting, 'Buffoon, buffoon,' and 'Thief.'

Those deputies who dared to speak insisted that they had voted 'according to conscience', but some talked of resigning. Several Socialists quit the party and the former Communists and Greens pulled out of the government.

None the less, the disgraced deputies have probably done Italy a service. Electoral reform, abolition of immunity and fresh elections may now come all the quicker. Indeed, the atmosphere at the demonstrations was almost festive, as if the night of shame will hasten the new Italy.