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Nothing hypothetical about Italy’s phone-tapping controversy

21 September 2012

Italy’s long-running battle between politicians and judges has taken a new turn, writes James Panichi. Meanwhile, a new political force is emerging


Popular president: Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano.
Photo: European Parliament

Popular president: Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano.
Photo: European Parliament

It’s official: Italian presidents can’t be blackmailed, and any suggestion to the contrary is “laughable.” That, at least, is the line taken by Italy’s head of state, Giorgio Napolitano, in a strongly worded statement at the height of one of the country’s most extraordinary political sagas.

Over the past three weeks Italians have discovered that their president’s private conversations have been recorded and their content used against him in a campaign of leaks and innuendo. Whether this meets the technical definition of blackmail is debatable, but what’s clear is that someone is out to get Napolitano and, possibly, the government he brought to power.

As well as talking tough in his press release, the president took the unprecedented step of asking the country’s Constitutional Court to decide whether the judiciary had the right to hang onto recorded conversations that aren’t relevant to current investigations. This week the court decided that it does have a mandate to examine the case.

It doesn’t look so good when a country’s highest office-holder has to beg a court to protect his privacy. But the seemingly never-ending tension between Italy’s politicians and the country’s powerful judiciary has never been a pretty sight.

The seeds of the crisis were sown in the early 1990s. The Sicilian mafia had undertaken what is now a well-documented campaign of terror against the Italian state, culminating in the 1993 bombing of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Totò Riina’s “Corleone clan” had launched the violent attacks to oppose an Italian law that mandated “hard jail” for mafiosi – a regime that placed bosses in isolation, denying them all communication with the outside world.

After the violence, Italian magistrates uncovered what appeared to be unusual contact between two high-level police commanders and the former mayor of Palermo Vito Ciancimino, a corleonese with mafia connections. The theory was that the national military police, the carabinieri, had been attempting to broker a secret deal with the mafia to end the violence.

The 1998 findings of the Florentine magistrates sparked a flurry of often overlapping investigations by prosecutors in Sicily. This wasn’t unusual: magistrates in Italy (who are both judges and public prosecutors) are able to launch and direct police investigations while remaining independent of both political interference and each other.

Judges in Palermo and other Sicilian districts began to piece together what were by then being referred to as “state–mafia negotiations” to prosecute those on the “state” side of the alleged deal. (The two police commanders have since been charged.) As part of the investigation, the magistrates ordered phone taps on a number of high-profile political players.

Wiretaps are widely used by Italian prosecutors (in 2009 alone there were 112,000 phones under surveillance) but the practice remains controversial. Authorisation is fairly easily obtained and the country’s highly politicised magistrature routinely leaks transcripts to discredit or simply embarrass prominent political figures.

Enter Giorgio Napolitano, knee-deep in negotiations to find a solution to the country’s political impasse late last year. The European financial crisis had brought down the Berlusconi government and the president was constitutionally required to test the waters. He eventually decided to ask MPs to support a “technical government” led by academic and former European commissioner Mario Monti. A deal was made, and Monti took charge.

Sicilian prosecutors have now confirmed that one of Napolitano’s regular confidantes throughout that crisis was Nicola Mancino, a friend who had been Italy’s interior minister between 1992 and 1994, during the mafia’s campaign of terror. The phone conversations between Mancino and Napolitano were being recorded as part of the state–mafia investigations.

Prosecutors have confirmed that the tapped phone belonged to Mancino and that Napolitano’s conversations were “foreign” to their investigations. But while the president’s comments weren’t incriminating, we now know that they would be highly embarrassing if made public. And the accusations of blackmail stem from the way in which the transcripts are, indeed, being made public.

In what has become a hallmark of Italian journalism, newspaper writers haven’t trumpeted the scoop but have instead dropped a series of hints about what they know. The editor of the left-leaning daily La Repubblica, Ezio Mauro, said he was speaking “hypothetically” in suggesting that Napolitano may have spoken ill of Berlusconi. Others have wondered what might happen if a hypothetical president were to make unfavourable comments about certain magistrates.

It now appears that there was nothing hypothetical about these scenarios. Panorama, a weekly news magazine, obtained confirmation that all of the hints dropped by journalists at the end of last month were indeed based on the transcript of the phone conversations. The magistrates promptly announced an investigation into how Panorama obtained the information – a response that was interpreted as confirmation of the story.

The clash between Italy’s political elites and its powerful, unelected judiciary is nothing new. One of its best-known protagonists, Silvio Berlusconi – who has no particular axe to grind with Napolitano at the moment – appears to be enjoying the brawl, claiming it proves what he has been saying all along: that unelected judges are running the country.

What’s different this time is the political backdrop. The Berlusconi governments in Italy saw many people culturally aligned with the right make their way to the centre-left, simply to put themselves in a better position to oppose an executive they saw as compromised by conflicts of interest.

Many of those political forces now appear to be coalescing within what’s been dubbed the difficult-to-translate giustizialista party (the opposite of giustizialista is garantista, someone who believes in the accused’s right to the presumption of innocence). The former high-profile prosecutor Antonio di Pietro is part of this nascent political force; the outspoken comic Beppe Grillo may turn out to be another. Meanwhile, the crusading journalist Marco Travaglio (the magistrates’ go-to guy) is providing the movement with its intellectual framework.

This grouping has been calling for prime minister Mario Monti’s resignation for months. And because Monti is governing with Napolitano’s support, the drip-feed of damaging intercepts (which is set to continue) could have another objective: with Napolitano gone, no one will have Monti’s back.

Adding to this mix is the judges’ unhappiness about Monti’s recently announced plans to reform the country’s slow, bloated judicial system. Proposed legislation introduced in August would close thirty-one of the country’s 166 courts, with the idea of improving efficiency and saving millions of euros.

Yet the magistrates have made it clear that any change to the judiciary would amount to political interference. In spite of a backlog of 5.5 million civil and 3.4 million criminal cases, the judiciary is reluctant to give up its work practices without a fight – a response not uncommon among Italy’s powerful corporations.

Now it’s up to the Constitutional Court to decide whether prosecutors are entitled to store phone taps that are irrelevant to their investigations. It’s a largely symbolic gesture: the tapes may well be leaked in their entirety before the court reaches its verdict.

But at least in the court of public opinion, Napolitano is on a high. Even La Repubblica, the firebrand paper which would regularly publish phone-taps targeting Berlusconi, has thrown its weight behind the president. Italy’s militant judges may be forced to retreat – for now. •

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