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Italy's Mafia trial stumbles over legal filibustering in courtroom

If the defense lawyers had their way, gone from the courtroom would be the rifle-toting guards, metal detectors, and other trappings of security that have become familiar features in Palermo, where Italy's colossal Mafia trial is being held. They would no longer be needed for the simple reason that none of the 475 suspects standing trial on charges ranging from racketeering to murder would be on hand - or even behind bars - when the verdict was announced.

In a move clearly aimed at tying up the trial, the defense has formally requested that more than 700,000 pages of evidence and testimony supporting the 8,636-page indictment be read aloud in court. This attempt at legal filibustering would take years, and in the process the defendants would be released one by one as the clock runs out on the time they can be legally detained in prison before being sentenced.

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Not only has this rather outrageous request revived the public's flagging interest in the trial's day-to-day proceedings, it has forced the Italian government to step in. Justice Minister Virginio Rognoni, although careful to note that the defense team is ``only doing its job,'' pledges that the government will intervene if necessary.

The solution proposed by Mr. Rognoni would not violate the defendants' constitutional right to have the documents read. But his suggestion that detention time during trial itself not be counted effectively disarms the defense team's efforts.

Pino Arlacchi, a Mafia expert, calls the lawyers' request a ``last ditch effort to avoid what they know by now to be a sure conviction of their clients.''

Mr. Arlacchi, who has closely followed the trial since it opened in February, says the state's case is based on an ``enormous body of evidence'' with detailed investigations into the financing of Mafia operations and testimony from 32 pentiti, or former Mafiosi who have turned state's witness.

The pentiti's role has become critical in the Palermo trial in light of recent decisions by higher Italian courts to refuse to uphold convictions based on testimony by pentiti in other Mafia cases.

Claire Sterling, who is currently writing a book chronicling the past 10 years of the Mafia's worldwide operations, warns that this tendency ``stands like a message to the judge and jury saying, `you can convict them if you like, but when the case gets up to Italy's highest court, it's going to be thrown out.''' But Arlacchi says he is confident that this time the charges will stick.

In the current race against the clock, support has also come from Parliament, which hastily passed a measure last month to blocked the imminent release of defendants accused of lesser offenses by extending from a year to a year and a half the amount of time they can be held before sentencing.

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But Mafia experts caution that not all indications from the government are positive.

A critical moment in recent weeks came when three ministers in the current administration - including Rognoni, Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini, and Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti - were called to testify in connection with the 1982 slaying of Gen. Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa and his wife. Prefect of Palermo for only 100 days, Dalla Chiesa has become a legendary figure in the nation's fight against organized crime on account of his investigation into links between alleged Sicilian mobsters and high-level government officials.

At closed-door hearings in Rome, the ministers were individually questioned about charges that Dalla Chiesa's work was hindered and his life endangered by the government's failure to come through with reinforcements and additional powers that were promised to him.

As he was leaving the hearing, Mr. Andreotti was asked about ties between the Mafia and politicians. He dismissed the question, saying, ``they've talked about it for a hundred years, but I personally don't know of any.''

A five-time prime minister who is favored to succeed Prime Minister Bettino Craxi this spring, Andreotti has been at the center of 29 parliamentary investigations. He has always emerged unscathed.

Says sociologist Arlacchi, ``contacts between Mafiosi and politicians are not as mysterious as most people imagine.'' But Arlacchi is quick to add that it is ``unrealistic to expect that a smoking gun will ever be found.''

Ms. Sterling points to denials made by Andreotti in his hearing and the fact that none of the ministers volunteered to testify in Palermo as troubling signs that ``political support for the trial is considerably weaker than it was at the beginning.''

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