ROME -- Giulio Andreotti, a former prime minister and a symbol of the now-collapsed Italian political establishment, has been indicted and ordered to stand trial in September on charges that he acted as a protector for the Mafia during his many years in power.
Prosecutors will seek to prove that Mr. Andreotti did favors for the Mafia in return for political support in Sicily for the Christian Democratic Party, which dominated the Italian government for decades after World War II.
Mr. Andreotti, 76, could face a 20-year prison sentence if convicted. He has denied the charges, which are based largely on testimony from former Mafia members who are now cooperating with prosecutors. Yesterday's indictment against Mr. Andreotti by Judge Agostino Gristina is based on a two-year investigation.
In a statement last night, Mr. Andreotti said the decision to bring him to trial was "unjustified."
"The only advantage of a trial is that it allows the witness to be examined and cross-examined," he said.
According to witnesses for the prosecution, Mr. Andreotti, whose last tour as prime minister ended in 1992, was not only linked politically to well-known Mafia members in Palermo, but on one occasion in 1987 he was seen embracing Salvatore (Toto) Riina, the reputed boss of all bosses of the Mafia.
During a six-hour closed hearing yesterday before Judge Gristina, Mr. Andreotti's lawyers argued unsuccessfully that the case be transferred to Rome to be tried before a special tribunal that hears criminal charges against government ministers. The judge denied the request, and ordered a trial in Palermo on Sept. 26.
Mr. Andreotti was prime minister of seven different governments during three separate tours for a total of about eight years -- 1972-73, 1976-79, and 1989-92. He was Italy's foreign minister for six years, from 1983 to 1989.
In numerous interviews, Mr. Andreotti has said that he is the victim of a Mafia-led conspiracy, which, he has suggested, was aided by his enemies in the United States, where two of his main accusers are part of a federal witness protection program.
Evidence from several former Mafiosi who have testified for prosecutors -- so-called "pentiti," or "reformed" gangsters -- has identified Mr. Andreotti as the Mafia's benefactor at the highest level of government. He was linked to Mafia bosses in Sicily by local politicians who belonged to his faction within the Christian Democratic Party.
Mr. Andreotti has denied meeting any known Mafia members. He has also consistently defended Salvo Lima, his top political lieutenant and the former mayor of Palermo who was killed by the Mafia in 1992.
During his years in power, Mr. Andreotti was seen in Washington as a key ally in efforts to keep Italy's Communists out of power.
At home, Mr. Andreotti's image was one of a cynical master of Italy's often tortuous politics. From his first election to Parliament in 1947, he somehow always managed to find a place in government. He was an undersecretary in De Gasperi's administration in 1947 and served, at one time or another, as minister of finance, the treasury, defense, industry and commerce, and the budget before becoming prime minister for the first time in 1972.
Since entering semi-retirement with his appointment as a "senator for life" in 1992, he has worked as editor of a Roman Catholic journal, Thirty Days.
For Mafia prosecutors in Palermo, the Andreotti case will be a critical test in its efforts to establish links between the Mafia and Italy's ruling political class. Their case was aided last month by testimony from a new witness, Gioacchino Pennino, who was both a full-fledged Mafia member and an elected member of the Palermo City Council from the Christian Democratic Party.