ROME -- For nearly 50 years Giulio Andreotti was the emblem and epicenter of Italian politics, the core about which Rome's revolving-door governments turned. Tomorrow, he returns to a fortified courtroom inside a prison in Sicily, accused of the con of the century: aiding and abetting the Sicilian Mafia while at the nation's helm.
The magnitude of his trial for murder and corruption is difficult to compare with anything in Italy's past, or with anything in the experience of the United States.
No single U.S. politician has even vaguely approached Mr. Andreotti's grip on his own country: He was seven times prime minister, six times foreign minister and since 1947 the occupant at least once of nearly every other important Cabinet post.
Mr. Andreotti is now 76. He is stooped, famously stone-faced and famously discreet. He was the heart of the Christian Democratic Party, which with support from the United States and the Vatican sought to steer a middle ground between the old scourge of Fascism and the postwar specter of Communism.
He has been a personal friend of popes, a colleague of European leaders from de Gaulle to Germany's Helmut Kohl, and a confidant of U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Bush. He is known for both his intelligence and a dry aphoristic wit. In honor of his survival skills, he is known as the "old fox" and "Eternal Giulio."
"Andreotti was Italy for 50 years," said Rome's La Repubblica newspaper, "he was Power, he was the Christian Democrat Party, he was the supreme Evil for one part of the country, and the King for the other."
Given that public life, the accusations about his private deeds are all the more chilling.
The charges are that for decades he shielded Sicily's Cosa Nostra -- the Mafia -- from prosecution. That he ordered the murder of a journalist who allegedly had damaging information about him. That he in effect created an illegal state-within-a-state in Sicily, one in which the Mafia guaranteed Mr. Andreotti and his allies votes at the polls in exchange for rake-offs of billions of dollars a year in government contracts.
He was without question a supporter of Salvatore Lima, the Christian Democratic mayor of Palermo, the Sicilian capital. And Mr. Lima, who became a member of Mr. Andreotti's Cabinet, was by many accounts a key figure in the Palermo Mafia. He was assassinated in 1992.
There is also the now-famous kiss that Mr. Andreotti is alleged to have exchanged in 1987 with Salvatore Riina when Riina was the "boss of bosses" in the Sicilian Mafia and a fugitive. Riina was captured in 1993 and is now serving multiple life sentences in prison.
No matter what the outcome of the trial, the decision to indict Mr. Andreotti was a symbol of the profound changes in the country's political life.
Mr. Andreotti attends daily Mass near his apartment in the center of Rome, accompanied by his bodyguards.
He has repeatedly denied all accusations that he worked with or protected the Mafia in exchange for votes for his Christian Democrats, who dominated politics until the party's collapse in 1992. It was the year prosecutors in Milan began to expose the culture of graft and corrupt patronage.
Mr. Andreotti maintains that the case against him is absurd, motivated by his political enemies and by the Mafia itself, which was angered because of the anti-Mafia steps his last government undertook.
He argues he is as much a victim of a Mafia vendetta as investigating magistrates Giovanni Falcone or Paolo Borsellino, both murdered by Mafia car bombs in 1992. They were assassinated after the Italian Supreme Court upheld the convictions of more than 300 Mafiosi in the largest Mafia trial in the country's history.
The court in the Andreotti case has been in session for only one day. The judge ordered a recess to ponder Mr. Andreotti's
request that they be moved to Rome, out of the bunker-like courtroom in Ucciardone Prison in Palermo, the same courtroom where the 300 Mafiosi were tried.
During last week's opening arguments, defense attorney Franco Coppi charged that prosecutors were trying to humiliate Mr. Andreotti by bringing him to trial in that same place.
"How can a man who has 50 times sworn an oath of loyalty to the republic also swear a loyalty oath to Cosa Nostra?" Mr. Coppi asked.
Prosecutors have called 400 witnesses to testify against him, including 24 "pentiti," repentant Mafiosi. The defense has called 116 witnesses, including former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar and a former U.S. ambassador to Italy, Peter Secchia.
The prosecutors' most difficult task may be to prove how and when Mr. Andreotti actually did favors for the Mafia in return for its electoral support. But the government has won many of its recent battles against the Mafia due to the Mafia informers agreeing to testify against their former underworld colleagues. Those who were thought untouchable by the law ended up in prison.
Pino Arlacchi, a member of Parliament's Anti-Mafia Commission, suggests that prosecutors will offer more than the testimony of witnesses with questionable pasts.
There are, Mr. Arlacchi says, "pages and pages, from which clearly emerge the solidity of the accusations. And especially because of the level of the personality, the investigations were more accurate and complete than if they had dealt with somebody else.
"In short, one doesn't try a piece of Italian history in a light-handed way."
For Leoluca Orlando, the first stridently anti-Mafia mayor of Palermo, the mere existence of the trial is a powerful reminder that the old political system has given way to the new. "The
citizens of Palermo are the first victims of the Mafia and of that perverse intertwining between the Mafia and institutions that we have always denounced," he said.
"Now, the untouchables don't exist anymore."