Giulio Andreotti, Italy's former prime minister, was acquitted last night by the country's highest court of ordering the Mafia to murder a journalist.
Last November Mr Andreotti, known as the grand old man of Italian politics after becoming prime minister seven times, was found guilty by an appeal court in the city of Perugia of ordering the murder of Mino Pecorelli in March 1979.
Mr Andreotti was given a 24-year jail sentence but it was only symbolic, given his age and his privileged status as a senator for life. Yet the verdict stunned Italy and prompted condemnations from across the political spectrum.
Yesterday, three judges sitting in the Court of Cassation in Rome, Italy's supreme court, wasted little time in throwing out the sentence.
Their decision came one day after the state prosecutor of the court, Gianfranco Ciani, told them that the sentence was "unfaithful to the trial".
"Absolve Andreotti," he said. "There is no proof that he desired the death of Mino Pecorelli. Motive is lacking. It has not been proved that he gave his tacit consent."
The judges agreed. And so after 169 hearings over 10 years, 300,000 pages of documents and three years of legal discussion, one of modern Italy's most teasing mysteries remains, like so many others, as mysterious as ever.
Mr Andreotti, the Christian Democrat leader whose subtle, courtly presence haunted Italian politics for decades, is now on the way to full public rehabilitation.
On the eve of the court's hearing, after the state prosecutor had given his unequivocal view, Mr Andreotti said: "I'm not an expert because I obtained my degree in 1941, but that sentence [of 24 years] seemed to me truly horrendous. I respect the decision of the Court of Cassation's prosecutor. To tell the truth, I was quite optimistic. I am satisfied."
After his acquittal last night he said: "Some might have hoped I wouldn't get here. But here I am, thanks to God."
Celebrating the end of the marathon case, his lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, said: "There is absolutely nothing that can happen to him after this."
Mr Andreotti, who according to judges in Sicily had links with Mafia leaders until 1980, was a frequent target of sensational articles by Pecorelli, who often referred to him as "the godfather." When he was shot dead in Rome, by four bullets from a silenced pistol, it was rumoured that he had been preparing to publish a particularly damaging article about Mr Andreotti.
There was no evidence of the former prime minister's involvement in the killing, and he was acquitted at the original trial. His conviction in Perugia last November was on the basis of new testimony by a Mafia supergrass, Tommaso Buscetta. But there was no forensic or other evidence to substantiate his claims.
Gaetano Badalamenti, a convicted mobster, was also implicated in Pecorelli's killing. His conviction was overturned yesterday, although he is in prison in the US serving a 30-year jail term.
Mr Andreotti, who always maintained his innocence, claimed that he was victimised by the Mafia. He said that they wanted to punish him for attempting to crack down on organised crime in Italy. He mounted a similar defence in Palermo, Sicily, where he faced charges of aiding Cosa Nostra.
A Sicilian court has already acquitted Mr Andreotti of being associated with the Mafia - but one judge said that he believed the former prime minister had friendly links with the Mafia decades earlier, outside the court's statute of limitations.
Thus Mr Andreotti's lawyers are taking his battle to Sicily's highest criminal court to clear his name. This will be the final hurdle to clear before his rehabilitation is complete. A verdict in that case is also expected soon.
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