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Italians worry about growth of wiretaps


ROME -- Italy's justice system is famous for grinding slowly. But recently, whenever a scandal arises, the newspapers quickly fill up with transcribed tapped phone conversations of some of the nation's most important people in the most embarrassing situations.

"She is Sicilian, so she isn't going to talk," Salvatore Sottile, an aide to one of Italy's most powerful politicians, is portrayed as saying in one transcript, as he discussed having an affair with a television personality.

Theirs is the latest tale in a string of titillating though important cases that are, in effect, being tried in the mass media through leaked transcripts long before they get to court. The defendants often argue that their remarks were taken out of context.

But more and more, legal scholars - not to mention worried politicians - are objecting to tapping and leaking on principle, seeing a grave risk to a fair trial. La Stampa newspaper contends that the obsession for tapping and leaking has become a national psychosis.

While the United States is struggling with the Bush administration's approval of broader eavesdropping on Americans, Italian authorities' use of phone-tapping has long been a simmering issue. But since 2001, the number of tapped phones has more than tripled, the Justice Ministry says. In each of the past two years, 100,000 phones have been tapped - representing a total of 1.5 million overheard conversations - at an annual cost of 300 million euros, or $379 million.

An Italian law established in 1974 stipulates that a judge may permit a tap if it is "indispensable" to an investigation and only when it pertains to crimes that carry sentences of five years or longer in prison.

"In some cases, they are indispensable," said Antonio Polito, a former journalist who is now a senator from the liberal Ulivo Party. "In many other cases, however, it is born from the laziness of the judges, who don't know how to conduct an investigation any other way. Some think that if they cast out enough line, sooner or a later a fish will bite."

The current and nearly continual wave of transcript-leaking began last year, in a case involving the Bank of Italy governor at the time, Antonio Fazio. He was brought down after a series of intercepts, one of which caught his wife cooing on the phone to a man who was trying to take over an Italian bank. More recently, tapped phone calls generated scandals over fixed soccer matches and party rivalries in regional elections.

The remarks of Sottile, who works for Gianfranco Fini, a national leader of the political right, were leaked while he was under house arrest in connection with a sting operation that centered on Prince Victor Emmanuel, one-time heir to the Italian throne.

The government picked up conversations the prince had about prostitutes, bribery and the illegal sale of slot machines, and the topics were all fodder for the front pages.

A significant amount of the leaking seems to be deliberate. The possible culprits are many, including prosecutors - who are aching to intimidate wrongdoers but frustrated that the court system drags out proceedings - defense attorneys, politicians, or the carabinieri, Italy's national police force. Because the intercepted conversations pass through so many hands, leakers face little threat of being discovered.

In this climate, some lawyers see a threat to basic rights. Alberto Biffani, a prominent defense lawyer, said, "This is a country where civil liberties don't exist and where no one respects privacy."

In the early 1990s, Biffani said, he was shown transcripts of his phone conversations with a former client, Claudio Vitaloni, a former government minister. Vitaloni, with former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, was accused of involvement in the killing of Italian journalist Mino Pecorelli. Andreotti and Vitaloni were acquitted.

But during the investigation, Biffani said, "We would pick up the phone and the carabinieri would be on the other end of the line. It shouldn't happen, but it does."

It seems that Italian politicians have had enough of the intercepts making their way into the news media. Recently, senators from both the left and right were howling in protest with rarely seen solidarity. A group of 53 senators signed a petition to form a commission to look into the practice of phone-tapping, one of five parliamentary initiatives investigating the practice.

Italy's justice minister, Clemente Mastella, said he was willing to make changes through a decree if he were to receive more bipartisan support. "I am ready to intervene with a decree against this bulimia of interceptions," Mastella was quoted as saying.

Polito said, "It is certain that justice in Italy is slow, and inefficient in some cases." But "if we want to substitute the penal justice with media justice, we are ruined. We drop to the level of a country that has no respect for rights."

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