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Monday, 18 November, 2002, 19:12 GMT
Q&A: Italy's Mafia murder shock
Former Italian PM Giulio Andreotti has been convicted of ordering a Mafia hit on an investigative journalist in 1979. BBC News Online answers some of the key questions the verdict raises.

How much of a shock has Mr Andreotti's conviction been to Italy's political establishment?

The guilty verdict must register nearly 10 on the Richter scale of Italian politics.

Ex-politicians don't come any bigger than Giulio Andreotti, who dominated politics for decades.

And criminal convictions don't come much bigger than ordering Mafia hits.

The verdict is all the more shocking to Italy's political elite because it relies on the word of a now-dead Mafia informer, Tommaso Buscetta - and because the gunmen themselves have not been convicted.

Italy's president, prime minister, leading politicians and newspapers have all lined up to condemn the verdict. Even a senior Vatican cardinal expressed his disquiet.

What happens now?

The judges haven't yet given the details of how and why they reached their shock decision.

When they do, Mr Andreotti will have a clearer idea of how to proceed.

He is widely expected to appeal to Italy's highest court - the Court of Cassation - to try to clear his name.

But under Italian law, he must wait for the written judgment - which could take anything up to 90 days to emerge - before he can launch his appeal.

Given his age - 83 - and the fact that an appeals process could drag on for years, some are predicting that he might not live to see the final chapter in his own life story.

To add to the confusion, a public prosecutor has said it might be impossible for Mr Andreotti to appeal.

But in any case, Italian law does not allow the jailing of anyone over 75.

So Mr Andreotti need not fight for his freedom, but he has a battle ahead to salvage his reputation.

The current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has led the criticism. Is that because he concerns for his own future?

Mr Berlusconi, who said the Andreotti verdict was "mad justice", does have his own much-publicised battles with the Italian justice system.

He is facing various inquiries relating to his business empire, and - like Mr Andreotti - has insisted that the action against him is politically-motivated.

He recently spearheaded a controversial new law which says that, if defendants have legitimate suspicion that the judge is biased, the trial may be shifted to another city under a different judge.

But despite Mr Berlusconi's own legal battles, it may be that his reaction to the Andreotti verdict is based on genuine dismay at the standard of evidence used to convict the ex-leader.

Critics say there appears to be only the weakest evidence against Mr Andreotti - crudely put, it may have come down to the word of a Mafia turncoat against that of a leading statesman.

That, say the host of opponents, is hardly sufficient to jail a former head of government for murder.

To what extent are Italy's judges deemed politically independent?

That depends on who you ask.

Mr Berlusconi accuses the judiciary of being part of a leftist conspiracy against him.

Mr Andreotti has also said he is the victim of politically-motivated left-wing judges.

Some right-wingers saw the sleaze scandals which dogged Italian politics in the 1990s as a judicial "coup d'etat".

Repeated corruption scandals brought down a succession of coalition governments and finally ended Mr Andreotti's period of influence.

Milan judges are viewed by the right with particular distaste, labelled "red cloaks" by their critics, and heavily lambasted by Mr Berlusconi.

And some judges elsewhere have, in the past, shown an apparent fondness for throwing out Mafia convictions.

But Italy's judges say it is Mr Berlusconi who is trying to undermine their independence.

Their claim was backed up by a UN report earlier this year, which said judges and prosecutors had "reasonable cause" to feel their independence was being threatened by leading politicians. The government firmly rejected the claims.

How much influence is the Mafia thought to have exercised within Italian politics?

Their influence has traditionally been strongest in their Sicilian heartlands, where the gangsters' tentacles are thought to have extended into many areas of business, local politics and the justice system. .

But the Mafia's influence on Italian politics was also seen as immense.

According to the evidence against Mr Andreotti, for example, he was consorting with Mafia bosses and was able to commission them to kill a journalist holding sensitive information.

A sea change in national attitudes to the Mafia occurred in the early 1990s, when the murders of anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino caused revulsion and outrage across the country.

The clean-up of public affairs added to the impression that the Mafia was being marginalised.

More recently, however, Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party won each and every seat in Sicily, prompting critics to suspect some foul play.

See also:

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