ROME — In the chase to curb massive official corruption in Italy, the hunters have become the hunted.
Antonio Di Pietro, a hugely popular former prosecutor who helped topple an entire political class with his "Clean Hands" investigations, has became the target of an unprecedented police sweep. On Friday, more than 300 police raided 58 locations - even Mr. Di Pietro's well - on suspicions he was bribed by a businessman suspected of kickbacks to state firms.
The raids led observers to say prosecutors, or magistrates, have gone too far to clean up Italy and are now engaged in a fratricidal war, turning the country into a "judicial republic."
"What is happening can only be compared to a civil war," says Sergio Romano, a former diplomat and leading editorialist.
"Magistrates moved into the political vacuum created by the 'Clean Hands' investigation and acquired too much power. Imagine an army without a leader suddenly invested with incredible power. The result can only be a civil war between the different factions of the Army," Mr. Romano says.
Di Pietro, who once reigned as a star anticorruption magistrate, is suspected of having accepted bribes to clear Pierfrancesco Pacini Battaglia, the Tuscan-born owner of a Swiss bank at the core of a colossal kickback scheme involving several large state-owned companies.
Magistrates in the northern city of Brescia looking for evidence against Di Pietro unleashed the police officers to go through the homes and offices of a businessman and a defense lawyer, both with close ties to Di Pietro.
The former prosecutor resigned last month as public works minister after learning that he had come under investigation himself.
Ironically, the spectacular search marked the second anniversary of Di Pietro's resignation as a prosecutor in Milan.
Di Pietro was unavailable throughout the weekend. His lawyer, Massimo Di Noia, said the only documents taken from his home were court papers, mostly lawsuits Di Pietro has filed against his detractors.
In a chaotic scene reminiscent of the heydays of the "Clean Hands" investigation, the police showed up at Di Pietro's doorstep in Montenero di Bisaccia - in the southern region of Molise - at the crack of dawn. After going through the house, officers literally lowered themselves into an old well on the family property looking for secret nooks.
As the day progressed, agents from the Guardia di Finanza, the revenue service, searched his homes in Rome and Curno, near Milan, presumably looking for papers documenting payments made by Mr. Pacini Battaglia, either to Di Pietro or to his friends.
For over a month now, magistrates in Brescia - who traditionally handle accusations against fellow magistrates in Milan - have been looking into numerous wire-tapped conversations in which Pacini Battaglia stated he had "paid dearly" to avoid incarceration when he was first held for questioning by Di Pietro in Milan in March 1993.
The scope and sheer theatricality of the raid prompted some criticism, mostly from the inhabitants of Montenero di Bisaccia, where Di Pietro is something of a folk hero. "They searched the well," said Michele Bozzelli, "They treated him like [Salvatore] 'Toto' Riina," the powerful head of the Sicilian mafia known as the belva, the beast, who was arrested three years ago in Palermo.
Others, however, believe Di Pietro has fallen prey to the same methods he employed as a prosecutor. "Mr. Di Pietro has become a victim of his own creation," said Vittorio Feltri, editor in chief of Il Giornale, a Milan-based, right-wing newspaper.
THE sweep also comes at a time when Italians are questioning the proliferation of investigations into politicians. Prime Minister Romano Prodi was the latest prominent political figure to come under investigation for events that took place over two years ago.
Last week, Giovanni Pellegrino, a senator with the PDS, the largest center-left party, denounced what he called "a hegemonic design" by magistrates seeking to occupy "spaces that belong to politics."
"I'm not suggesting that they routinely get together to elaborate a strategy," Mr. Pellegrino said in an interview. "I'm saying that ... oddly enough [magistrates] are devoting all their attention to those who have been trying to reorganize and legitimize politics again."
The speaker of the lower house of parliament, former magistrate Luciano Violante, warned that Italy had become a "judicial republic" run by magistrates.