Silvio Berlusconi ally had no Mafia links after 1992, court rules

Judges in Sicily today handed down a verdict that effectively cleared the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, of accusations his entry into politics had been sponsored by the Mafia.

The court of appeal in Palermo concluded that the Sicilian advertising executive who created the Forza Italia! (Come on Italy!) party with which Berlusconi burst onto the political scene in 1994 had previously had links with Cosa Nostra, the original Mafia.

But the three judges decided there was no evidence to show that Marcello Dell'Utri – a long-term friend and ally of Berlusconi – had been in cahoots with the mob after 1992.

That was little comfort to Dell'Utri, who was convicted of collaborating with the Mafia six years ago.

His sentence was reduced, but only from nine to seven years, and he said the judges – who took six days to consider their decision – had crafted "a verdict worthy of [Pontius] Pilate".

But the outcome will delight Berlusconi's other followers, who have long insisted he was put in the frame by Cosa Nostra because of the success of his governments in tackling organised crime.

His spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, noted in December that, since Berlusconi's rightwing administration returned to office two years ago, 15 of Italy's 30 most wanted mobsters had been arrested.

Allegations of a tacit understanding between Berlusconi and the Mafia have nevertheless resurfaced since then because of the government's sponsorship of a bill that would limit the powers of police and prosecutors to place wiretaps and bugging devices.

Dell'Utri's appeal was electrified six months ago when Gaspare Spatuzza, a jailed Cosa Nostra hitman, gave evidence that his "godfather", Giuseppi Graviano, had told him of an agreement forged with Berlusconi in the early 90s.

But the crime boss's brother, Filippo, subsequently denied the assertion, undermining the prosecution's central thesis.

Prosecutors had argued that the Mafia spread panic with a campaign of quasi-terrorist bombings in mainland Italy in the early 90s so that Forza Italia! could step onto the political stage in the guise of national saviour. The bombings stopped after Berlusconi first won power in 1994, but his campaign for office was not based solely, or even principally, on a promise to halt them.

Dell'Utri, then the head of Berlusconi's advertising business, Publitalia, played a key role in the media tycoon's entry into politics.

He created Forza Italia! from scratch in less than a year, giving many of the most responsible party jobs to Publitalia executives.

Today's ruling is unlikely to put an end to speculation about the prime minister's relationship with organised crime. He once employed a Mafia boss at his villa near Milan, and his party won every Sicilian seat at the 2001 general election.

(Published by The Guardian – June 29, 2010)

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