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Sicily mobs Andreotti as trial opens

He appeared just as he has appeared so often in his long career: a smiling, nervous expression on his face, an elegantly tailored blue suit fitting smoothly over his hunched frame, and a small pile of documents folded under his arm. But yesterday was hardly an ordinary day for Giulio Andreotti as he attended the opening session of his trial on charges of collusion with the Sicilian Mafia.

At the height of his powers as a government minister and Christian Democrat wheeler-dealer, it was invariably Mr Andreotti who held the attention of whatever company he found himself in, while everyone else sat up and listened. In the chastening surroundings of the courtroom, Mr Andreotti may still have been the centre of attention, but this time not a word passed his lips.

The high-security judicial "bunker" inside an annexe of Palermo's Ucciardone prison has seen some strange sights since it was built for the first Mafia "maxi-trials" in the mid-1980s. Yesterday the 30 hulking iron cages built to contain killers, drug-dealers, and money-launderers a decade ago lay eerily empty at the back of the semi-circular courtroom.

Mr Andreotti came through the same door as the prosecution team; he was not put in a dock, but sat on a front bench next to two of his lawyers, Franco Coppi and Odoardo Ascari. As a devout Catholic he was no doubt reassured by the sight of a large crucifix above the president's chair.

The front of the judges' bench bears the admonition "The Law is Equal for All", but already it is clear that Mr Andreotti is being treated, if only by virtue of his status, as a very special kind of defendant.

He insisted on flying down from Rome on a regular Alitalia service rather than the special private jet to which he is entitled as a former prime minister, and was promptly mobbed by journalists and photographers.

At Palermo airport he enjoyed the kind of reception that used to greet Giovanni Falcone, the murdered anti-Mafia judge who set up the maxi-trials of the 1980s. The road into town was lined with armed police, as well as the occasional graffito proclaiming "Long live Andreotti". It was not easy to tell if Sicily was welcoming a disgraced politician or a film star.

When Mr Andreotti decided to switch hotels at the last moment, one wondered if it was for security reasons, or to give the press the slip.

For the all the build-up and strange symbolism of the event, the opening session ended up as little more than routine. The presiding judge, Francesco Ingargiola, banned live television transmission, to the relief of the prosecution, which had feared an Italian version of the OJ Simpson trial, and allowed the state broadcaster RAI to film the proceedings only from fixed camera positions.

The defence then made a lengthy plea to have the proceedings transferred to Rome, an unlikely prospect since similar requests have consistently been turned down in the past. The trial resumes a week tomorrow.