WAS Giulio Andreotti, Italy's most-powerful politician for decades, really the protector of ruthless Sicilian assassins, international drug traffickers, and extortioners?
Still more sensational, was the seven-time prime minister kissed in an alleged late-1980s meeting by Cosa Nostra's supreme leader, Salvatore ''Tot'' Riina?
Investigating magistrates in Palermo, Sicily's capital, say the answer is yes to these questions. Last week they won the indictment of Mr. Andreotti, whose trial is to begin in the Sicilian capital Sept. 26.
''It means that finally they're conducting trials on the relationship between the Mafia and politics,'' Leoluca Orlando, Palermo's anti-Mafia mayor and long-time Andreotti foe, told the Monitor.
Andreotti strenuously denies the charges and says that he always fought the Mafia. He argues that there is not a single proof against him, that one or more of the prosecution's witnesses were ''bought,'' and that he suspects this trial is a vendetta by unidentified American enemies (some of his accusers are under United States protection programs).
Seventeen Mafia penitents, known as pentiti, have identified Andreotti as the man the Mafia turned to in Rome when it needed political favors.
The judges argue that Andreotti helped to ''adjust'' Mafia-related trials or get Mafiosi released after sentencing in return for massive electoral support from Cosa Nostra (the Mafia), for his political cronies in Sicily.
The kiss, traditionally a greeting between Mafiosi, is the most startling element of this thesis.
Mr. Riina's ex-driver-turned-pentito, Baldassare Di Maggio, alleges it took place at lunchtime on a date he can't remember in the Palermo residence of Mafioso Ignazio Salvo. He says Andreotti was seated on a sofa together with parliamentary deputy Salvo Lima, the leader of Andreotti's Sicilian political contingent, when Riina arrived with other Mafiosi.
Andreotti and Lima stood up on Riina's entrance, and Riina, whose arrest was sought by the police, went to greet first Andreotti and then Lima with a kiss on both cheeks, Mr. Di Maggio says.
Riina -- arrested in 1993 on information Di Maggio furnished investigators -- then asked Di Maggio to leave the room and never spoke again of the meeting, the pentito adds.
''But Di Maggio believed he could guess the content,'' the judges write. ''Only a few days before, in fact, he himself had been instructed by Riina to go to Ignazio Salvo and ask him to contact Salvo Lima, so that Lima would speak with Andreotti about the negative course of the first maxi-trial.''
The so-called maxi-trial -- a mass trial of Mafiosi -- concluded Dec. 16, 1987, with 19 life sentences.
When Di Maggio's testimony was made public about a year ago, Andreotti said it was absurd, adding he never traveled without a police escort and therefore meeting Mafiosi was clearly out of the question.
The judges, after subsequent investigation, have isolated ''one of the possible dates'' on which they say the meeting could have taken place: Sept. 20, 1987, three months before the end of the maxi-trial, when Andreotti was in Palermo for a political congress.
Andreotti's security detail contradicts the political leader, telling the judges that Andreotti dismissed them around lunchtime on this day for several hours.
''No one is in a position to say what Andreotti did from lunchtime until late afternoon, when he was seen by his escort personnel coming back to his hotel,'' the judges write.
The pentiti say that the Mafiosi believed Andreotti to be a friend of Corrado Carnevale, a judge known as ''the sentence killer'' for his frequent reversal of Mafia convictions. Andreotti says he had only a nodding acquaintance with Mr. Carnevale; the judges say they have evidence that suggests otherwise. In any case, the Mafiosi expected the sentences to be reversed on appeal, the pentiti add.
But ''the sentence killer'' was removed from the maxi-trial appeal. The January 1992 appeals court decision confirmed the sentences, enraging Cosa Nostra. Forty days later the mob assassinated Andreotti's friend Lima.
Lima had been the pillar of Andreotti's substantial political support in Sicily since 1968 and his connections with Cosa Nostra were ''clear,'' the parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission stated in 1993.
Andreotti says he heard rumors -- like everyone else -- but has never seen proof that Lima was connected with Cosa Nostra.
The pentiti say Lima was murdered because he and Andreotti broke their promise to help the Mafia in the maxi-trial.
''Salvo Lima's murder on March 12, 1992, signaled the end of an exchange agreement that lasted for more than 20 years,'' the judges write. '' 'After that murder,' ex-[Justice] Minister Claudio Martelli said, 'Senator Andreotti was frightened, either because he didn't understand, or perhaps because he had understood.' ''