Italy's attempt at judicial reform opening prison doors for many pre-trial suspects

Pietro d'Aprile, an Italian citizen, spent 51/2 years in jail awaiting trial on murder charges. When he was finally tried this year, he was acquitted on grounds he had acted in self-defense.

Giuliano Naria, a suspected terrorist, has been in jail 81/2 years awaiting trial. Rome judges favor putting the now bedridden prisoner under house arrest, but the administration of a jail in Trani insists on pressing charges against him for leading a prison revolt in 1980. They maintain he is still capable of escaping house arrest and leading terrorist revolts.

These cases illustrate two aspects of a problem confronted by new legislation cutting the time suspects can be held in preventive detention. At present some 65 percent of the inmates in Italian jails are awaiting trial.

Among other things, the new measures reduce to six years the maximum period a prisoner can be held without trial. The emergency antiterrorist laws of the 1970 s had stipulated a maximum of 10 years and 8 months of pretrial detention for the most serious crimes. For lesser crimes the maximum pretrial detention period is now four years.

The new legislation makes thousands of detainees eligible for release on parole or under house arrest and outlines the conditions under which a prisoner can claim house arrest. Formerly house arrest was a privilege accorded at the discretion of the presiding magistrate.

The main part of the law goes into force in February 1985. Thus magistrates and lawyers have six months in which to update their cases and arrange trials for waiting clients.

Although the measures are seen as a necessary and positive step in Italy's slow-moving judiciary system, most judicial employees regard as totally unrealistic and potentially disastrous the period in which they are to be implemented.

''We must try to prevent these measures which have been extended beyond original intentions from provoking more damage than advantages,'' said Interior Minister Oscar Scalfaro. Overseeing the thousands potentially being released on parole or under house arrest will add to the workload of an already overworked police force.

Magistrates have been inundated with requests from lawyers for release or house arrest for their clients.

Among those seeking house arrest is Licio Gelli, head of the notorious Propaganda-2 Masonic lodge. Gelli, who escaped from a Swiss jail and is thought to be hiding in South America, has made it known he is ready to give himself up - if he can be held under house arrest in his villa in Tuscany.

He faces charges of fraudulent bankruptcy, political and military espionage, and a list of other such charges with a possible jail sentence of 15 years. His lawyers invoke the new clause according house arrest to those over 65.

House arrest can also be claimed by those in precarious health and by pregnant women or nursing mothers. The conditions: The residence must be judged escape proof, there must be no possibility of destroying or damaging trial evidence, and the personality of the prisoner must be judged suitable.

''Gelli's house is sufficiently well guarded, he is over 65, and above all he does not want to escape since he is giving himself up in order to clarify his position in the Italian courts,'' says one of his three lawyers.

Another area of Italian crime may well profit by the new law. Giovanni Falcone, a leading magistrate handling Mafia crimes in Palermo, Sicily, foresees years of careful investigations into organized crime being disrupted by the release of thousands of Mafia suspects.

In his kind of investigations the culprits are often known, but talkative witnesses are few and proof almost nonexistent. So judges have relied on long and painstaking police inquiries into bank accounts and the financial affairs of suspects whom they hold on charges ranging from car theft and unlicensed possession of weapons to kidnapping and murder. By ordering consecutive detentions, judges could in effect hold suspects indefinitely.

''You need at least a year to do a fiscal bank investigation, and months to examine thousands of documents and send judicial communications to various suspects and their lawyers,'' complains Palermo magistrate Giovanni Falcone.

Most magistrates seem to concur that the real reform should be the streamlining of the lengthy bureaucratic procedures of the Italian justice system, as well as some additional financing.

At present the government spends just 0.76 percent of the national budget on the unwieldy machinery of Italian justice.

''Legislation has intervened on the effects not the causes of preventive detention,'' says Gianfranco Caselli, a magistrate from Turin. He has presided over the most important terrorist trials in that city.

The law is also aimed at reducing the population of Italy's 300 overcrowded jails. Built to house 27,000 inmates, they now hold 46,000, of whom 30,000 are awaiting trial.

In most jails about 70 percent of the inmates are untried. A case in point is Naples' Poggioreale Prisone.

Only 188 of the 2,541 inmates there are serving sentences. The others include some 400 suspected Naples Mafia (Camorra) suspects eligible for release under the new law.

''There is no doubt that after February Italian society will be crowded with potentially dangerous criminals,'' says Maurizio di Pietropaolo. He points out that the six months given to magistrates to put their affairs in order is ridiculously short.

''The law was passed in July, the middle of the summer holidays, which in judicial circles end on Sept. 15. Take away a month for Christmas and Easter, and you have four working months left,'' he says in dismay.

Already in Rome the judicial program is behind schedule. Of the 150 trials programmed for the next six-month session of the city's four assizes, only 29 are ready to go to court.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.