War against corruption takes a lone prisoner

Italy/ scandal lingers on
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The Independent Online
THREE YEARS after the outbreak of the corruption scandals that brought down a political generation, one might have thought Italy's prisons would be bursting with sleazy deputies, local councillors, fixers, industrialists and businessmen, but they are not.

An astonishing 25,000 people, including 520 MPs, have been formally investigated by magistrates in Milan, Rome, Naples and elsewhere. Nearly 5,000 detention warrants were issued in the first heady months of the scandal, and hundreds of suspects spent weeks or even months in pre-trial custody.

But it would be wrong to assume many have actually been sentenced and jailed. These days, because of the quirks of Italy's legal system, one can count the number of people behind bars as a result of the clean-up on one hand. Or, to be more precise, on one finger.

Walter Armanini, a flamboyant former Milan city councillor nicknamed "Dracula" because of his manipulation of funds earmarked for the city's cemeteries and morgues, is the only figure in the whole tangentopoli bribes scandal to have received a definitive sentence and begun to serve it.

He is furious, of course. "Where are all the crooks who stole billions upon billions? I'll tell you where, all sitting at home or else sunning themselves on their yachts. I'm just a mug, a scapegoat used by the judiciary to prove that they are actually doing something," he fumed in an interview conducted in the prison yard of the state penitentiary in Orvieto, about 70 miles north of Rome, where he is serving a five-year sentence.

"If there were three or four or five of us it would make me feel better, but no, I am the only one."

Armanini has been stewing in Orvieto since the end of January, when he unexpectedly gave himself up after three months on the run at a beach resort in northern Brazil. He thought he was doing the honourable thing, but now he is not so sure.

"I have been completely ruined. I have lost my business, my political career, my family, my lover, my friends. My lawyers are carving up my assets and I have issued writs to stop them robbing me. And now I am slowly dying in this place, serving the kind of sentence usually reserved for murderers and terrorists. It's an absolute scandal," he said.

While he, a relatively minor figure, rots in prison, the big fish are all still at large. Few have even bothered to go into exile, since under Italian law a convicted criminal is not jailed until his case has been heard all the way up to the High Court.

Most are sitting back while their cases are endlessly deferred, confident that by the time they come up their crimes will be too old to be punished. Some, such as Mario Chiesa, the Milan old people's home director who was the first person arrested in the corruption scandal, have been sentenced, buthave made legal deals to escape jail in exchange for a few fines and light community service.

Gianni De Michelis, the disco-dancing ex-foreign minister accused of siphoning overseas development aid into his pocket, was spotted in Rome the other day looking dapper and cheerful. His case is grinding away in Venice.

Bettino Craxi, the disgraced former prime minister and Socialist leader, is at his holiday villa in Hammamet in Tunisia. Mr Craxi's former protege, Claudio Martelli, has been convicted once, but was photographed not long ago in Sardinia with his hand cupped around the breast of an alluring younger woman.

Francesco De Lorenzo, the former health minister accused of stealing from his department,was in jail for a while pending trial, but managed to get out on health grounds at Christmas, after turning anorexic and mumbling incoherently about going to Burundi as a charity worker.

A couple of months later a photographer snapped him dining out at a chic Roman restaurant called, appropriately, I Due Ladroni (The Two Thieves). Armanini's big mistake was to refuse to plea-bargain right at the beginning of his ordeal, when he was first held in Milan's San Vittore jail back in 1992.

As it was, he stuck obstinately to protests of innocence. When his definitive sentence came through last October he was so scared of returning to the rats, lice and other austerities of San Vittore that he decided to run.

According to his own rather melodramatic account, he had a cyanide pill in his mouth that he was prepared to crunch if he was caught leaving the country. But three months in Bahia San Salvador chilled him out and, feeling nostalgic for his bombshell 26-year-old actress girlfriend Demetra, he decided to return.

He turned himself in at Orvieto, reputed to be the cushiest jail in the country, with televisions in every room, a cinema, theatre and plenty of fresh air.

These days he is a tortured man. Demetra has left him for a succession of torrid affairs with Italian television personalities.The lawyer looking after his finances has sent no money since he arrived at Orvieto, while his criminal lawyer has made no progress on obtaining parole.

To hear him speak obsessively about his case, one could think Armanini a touch paranoid. But looking at him serving his time, alone among thousands of corruption suspects, one can hardly blame him.