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Legislation will enrich Mafia, say critics

December 5, 2009

by Guy Dinmore in Cisterna di Latina

Published: December 5 2009

Light and fruity, a little rough and effervescent but, as its promoters declare, a white wine that also comes with the sweet taste of “legality”.

Labelled Campo Libero, or Free Field, and produced by Il Gabbiano, a social co-operative helping former drug addicts and criminal offenders, the grapes come from a vineyard near Rome that was confiscated from a Mafia clan based in Naples.

A small success story that has struggled against the odds – a first harvest in 2006 was vandalised in a night attack by the mob – Il Gabbiano is the defiant fruit of one of the most potent weapons Italy has developed in its war against organised crime.

But even as Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s billionaire prime minister, has declared his intention to go down in history as the leader who defeated the Mafia, his centre-right government is introducing a raft of legislation that anti-Mafia activists and prosecutors say will benefit the mob and undermine future projects like Il Gabbiano.

Il Gabbiano is one of several thousand similar social initiatives to have benefited from a 1982 law that established the crime of “Mafia conspiracy” and introduced powers for the state to carry out sweeping confiscations of Mafia-related assets.

So determined was Sicily’s Cosa Nostra to stop the law that it gunned down its chief architect, Pio La Torre, leader of the Italian Communist party in Sicily, and, four months later, General Carlo Dalla Chiesa, prefect of Palermo, and his wife. Their deaths only served to hasten parliament’s approval of the law, and 12 years later a grassroots campaign that collected more than 1m signatures resulted in a second law providing for those assets, mostly property, to be assigned by a state agency for social purposes.

All that may soon change, however. An amendment contained in the government’s 2010 budget, currently passing through parliament, would result in the auctioning of many – but not all – seized Mafia assets to the highest bidder.

Promoters of the bill say the current system is too slow and costly to the state. Auctions would provide the cash-strapped government with funds, which could in turn be used for charitable purposes.

Libera, an anti-Mafia umbrella group led by Luigi Ciotti, a Catholic priest, argues instead that the proposed law would be a huge step backwards, allowing fronts for the Mafia to buy back their assets on the cheap. A new signature campaign is under way.

The controversy has contributed to a fierce debate in Italy on the government’s commitment to fighting the Mafia. That debate has been ignited by claims made by Gaspare Spatuzza, a Mafia hitman turned state witness, that Mr Berlusconi had dealings with the Sicilian mob in the early 1990s, when he was about to enter politics.

“If there is one person who by disposition, sensitivity, mentality, education and cultural and political commitment, who is furthest from the Mafia, that person is me,” Mr Berlusconi said last Sunday after Mr Spatuzza’s claims, made to prosecutors, were reported in the media. Mr Spatuzza repeated his allegations in court yesterday.

On the interior ministry’s website a section is dedicated to anti-Mafia legislation adopted by the government, including a toughening of the famous “article 41b” that imposes harsh prison conditions on convicted Mafia bosses. The ministry says that under the Berlusconi government, police have made 3,630 Mafia-related arrests – 22 per cent more than during the previous 18 months of Romano Prodi’s centre-left government, and which included 15 of the top 30 most dangerous fugitives.

Despite the undeniable success of the police, anti-Mafia magistrates warn that Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta and the Camorra of the Naples area continue to expand their reach, while Sicily’s Cosa Nostra is trying to regroup.

Father Ciotti questions the government’s commitment. “There are ugly signs,” he said.

The priest lists a sweeping amnesty under way for tax evaders with funds stashed abroad, the cabinet’s decision not to sack the town council of Fonti, despite recommendations of the government’s own prefect, who suspects Mafia links, plus a proposed law that would limit the ability of magistrates to tap -telephones.

Roberto Scarpinato, a senior anti-Mafia prosecutor in Palermo, has urged the government not to repeat the mistake of earlier tax amnesties which, with the guarantee of anonymity, paved the way for Mafia bosses to repatriate millions of euros.

Mario Draghi, the governor of the central Bank of Italy, has also stepped into the debate by calling for tougher anti-money laundering provisions in the tax amnesty and by warning on the infiltration of local governments by the Mafia in southern Italy.

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