AMERICANS are about to see the end of the O.J. Simpson trial, but for Italians, the "trial of the century" is just beginning.
In Palermo's maximum-security courtroom inside prison walls tomorrow, a man who served seven times as prime minister of Italy, Giulio Andreotti, will face charges that he was the Sicilian Mafia's man in the Rome government.
"The trial isn't only judicial, it's also political," said Sen. Carmine Mancuso of Palermo, provincial capital of Sicily. "I think the trial will be very embarrassing ... for all the political forces."
"It means the system is absolutely rotten" if Mr. Andreotti is found guilty, Senator Mancuso told the Monitor, because a conviction would show that Italy was living for decades with a leader who was influenced by the Mafia.
Mancuso, a left-wing foe of the conservative Andreotti, says it has taken too long to prosecute the former leader. "We've been living in a very limited democracy," he adds, referring to the fact that Andreotti's Christian Democratic Party ruled in coalition governments for about 50 years.
Since advising Andreotti on March 27, 1993, that he was under investigation, the judges have been researching several concrete charges, interrogating individuals ranging from ex-mafiosi to limousine drivers, and searching for documentary evidence among airport logs and credit-card records.
The most sensational charge is that Andreotti was kissed on both cheeks, Mafia-style, by Salvatore "Toto" Riina - the supreme leader of Cosa Nostra, as the Sicilian Mafia is known to its initiates - in a meeting the judges say happened Sept. 20, 1987.
Mr. Riina, whose arrest was sought at that time, called the alleged meeting to ask Andreotti's help in springing numerous mafiosi from jail sentences, the magistrates say. Riina's driver is now a pentito, as mafiosi who turn state's evidence are known, and says the meeting took place in the home of mafioso Ignazio Salvo.
Andreotti dismisses the accusation as absurd and strenuously denies having had any contacts with mafiosi. He has appeared frequently on Italian TV to rebut the charges against him and has even defended himself in a new book.
The judges argue that Andreotti, a Roman, began consolidating his political power with the support of parliamentary deputy Salvatore Lima, whom one pentito has identified as a mafioso.
Whether or not he was a mafioso, Mr. Lima, Sicily's most-powerful politician and a former Palermo mayor, had close links to the Mafia, the Italian Parliament's Anti-Mafia Commission says. He and the Sicilian politicians orbiting around him substantially bolstered Andreotti's political influence between 1968 and 1992.
The judges maintain that the Mafia gave Andreotti's Sicilian friends votes and in return asked Andreotti for political favors, such as "adjusting" trial sentences. The alleged kiss is one of many accusations the investigating magistrates, led by Giancarlo Caselli, want to clarify.
One such accusation involves the Cosa Nostra executions of magazine editor Carmine Pecorelli in Rome in 1979 and Gen. Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa in Palermo in 1982. Mafia super-pentito Tommaso Buscetta revealed to the judges that the two cases were connected by a common thread: Both men were privy to secret writings of Christian Democrat politician Aldo Moro, who was kidnapped and murdered by Red Brigade terrorists in 1978.
Moro, while held by the terrorists, wrote pages of letters and memoirs, including a damning description of fellow party-member Andreotti, who was firmly opposed to dealing with the terrorists for Moro's release. Andreotti, he wrote, wanted power "so he could do evil as he has always done evil throughout his life." Moro also linked Andreotti to a financial scandal of the era.
Some of Moro's writings came to light after his death, and still further pages were leaked earlier in this decade, including the broadside against Andreotti. But the complete memoirs were apparently seen only by General Dalla Chiesa (the policeman in the case), Mr. Pecorelli, and Andreotti himself. Pecorelli and Dalla Chiesa were killed to keep them from revealing secrets that might have damaged Andreotti politically, Mr. Buscetta, the pentito, says.
In addition to the alleged meeting with Riina, Andreotti is accused of meeting separately with the late Stefano Bontade, Gaetano Badalamenti, and Nitto Santapaola, all heavyweight mafiosi.
Italians debate the strength of the case against Andreotti. The trial could last for three or four years, according to Mancuso, a former police officer. He says the judges depended too heavily on the pentiti, who could prove to be unreliable.
But other observers say they pentiti may have a strong incentive to tell the truth because they enjoy a very special legal status in Italy, including protection by the government.
If they are proven liars, say many legal observers, they lose their government-provided security and become sitting ducks for a Mafia all too eager to silence them permanently.