ITALY'S fight against the Mafia, at a crossroads with the election of a new right-wing government, gained international attention when Palermo judges said Saturday they intend to call for the indictment of former Prime Minister Guilio Andreotti on charges of being linked to Cosa Nostra.
Mr. Andreotti, a senator for life, is probably Italy's best-known politician, if for no other reason than his decades-long career embracing almost every high office here. He left the office of prime minister more than two years ago - after serving seven terms - paving the way for a renewal of the country's political class.
Andreotti is accused by nine Mafia penitents (jailed Mafia informers) of having done favors for the Sicilian Mafia and met with some of its highest representatives, including reputed supreme Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore Riina, arrested in Palermo in January 1993.
``This terrible accusation has hounded me from March of last year,'' Andreotti told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. ``I well know how unfounded it is, and for this reason I'm not discouraged. Now I'll have the opportunity to defend myself.''
The former prime minister says he was constantly surrounded by security guards in recent years, which rendered secret meetings with mafiosi impossible. The court claims to have found a six-hour gap during one visit to Sicily in which he allegedly dismissed his body guards. He demands that the court provide proof of even one trial that he adjusted for the Mafia or show a single case in which he did a political favor for Cosa Nostra, Italy's name for the Mafia.
The charges against Andreotti, filed by investigating magistrate Giancarlo Caselli in Palermo after 14 months' investigation, follow Parliament's vote of confidence late last week in the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Mr. Berlusconi, the owner of three national television networks and numerous other business activities, has pledged to continue the serious struggle against Cosa Nostra that achieved a high profile since Andreotti's departure from power. The new interior minister and justice minister both paid official visits to Sicily and Judge Caselli in their early days in office.
On his visit last weekend, Justice Minister Alfredo Biondi sparked controversy when he proposed changing the law that governs former Mafia collaborators with justice.
During the election campaign for the March parliamentary poll, members of Berlusconi's political coalition said they disapproved of Mafia penitents dribbling out bits of information in successive appearances before investigating magistrates, suggesting that the penitents could thus be manipulated by lawyers or investigators, and they proposed revising the law to permit the collaborators with justice only one opportunity to say their piece.
``Balance is needed,'' Mr. Biondi said in his remarks.
Caselli rejected Biondi's proposal, asking, rhetorically, whose interest a change in the laws on penitents would serve.
``Without the penitents, the Capaci attack would still be a mystery,'' the magistrate said, referring to the brutal murder of Italy's revered anti-Mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone, in May 1992. The Palermo courts have since indicted a number of Mafiosi who allegedly ordered and executed the Falcone assassination.
``The idea that a Mafioso who has been in Cosa Nostra for 10 or 20 years could recount everything that he knows immediately is ridiculous,'' added Parliament deputy Pino Arlacchi, in an interview with l'Unita.
``Whoever says such things has never looked a collaborator in the face. The penitent can't remember all the criminal acts in which he participated or of which he has knowledge in his first meeting with the public prosecutor and in successive meetings, even if they're prolonged for months,'' Mr. Arlacchi says.