ROME -- Closing a chapter in Italian postwar history, a three-judge panel in Palermo acquitted Giulio Andreotti, seven times prime minister of Italy, yesterday of charges that he was the Sicilian Mafia's main protector in Rome.
The verdict was a vindication for the 80-year-old Andreotti, who has spent much of the past decade in court. "Obviously, I am delighted," he said after watching the verdict, announced live on national television, in his Senate office in Rome. "It was not so great to have to wait so many years."
The outcome was not entirely unexpected. In a trial in Perugia last month, Andreotti was acquitted of conspiring in the murder in 1979 of a muckraking journalist. In Palermo, as in Perugia, prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of "pentiti," Mafia members turned cooperative witnesses. The prosecution presented more hearsay than hard evidence.
The verdict in Sicily was not the full exoneration Andreotti won in Perugia, where he was acquitted of committing the crime. Judges in Palermo instead concluded that there was insufficient evidence to convict. In Sicily, where the grip of the Mafia is still felt, that distinction might have reflected suspicions that organized crime could not have thrived so long without help from political officials.
The six-year trial in Palermo, which involved more than 300 witnesses, including 30 cooperative Mafia witnesses, was viewed as Italy's "trial of the century."
Andreotti was the power broker of the Christian Democratic Party, which governed Italy for almost 50 years. He remains the personification of a system that disintegrated in the early '90s under the weight of its corruption. In some ways, Italian society was on trial with the former prime minister.