ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano gave unprecedented testimony on Tuesday in a major trial that accuses the state of holding secret talks with the Sicilian Mafia in the 1990s.
Palermo prosecutors seeking to shed light on a murky period when the mob targeted the state with assassinations and bombings questioned a sitting head of state in a mafia trial for the first time in the country’s history.
Among the 10 defendants are Nicola Mancino, who was interior minister at the time, and Salvatore Riina, once Italy’s most powerful mob boss.
The 89-year-old Napolitano is not accused of any crime and was called as a witness who may have knowledge useful to the trial, but the hearing may tarnish the image of a president who has done much to guide Italy through political and economic turmoil in recent years.
Most Italian presidents have been little more than ribbon-cutters and authors of patriotic speeches in the past, but Napolitano has stepped in three times in as many years to break political deadlock and seat governments amid economic crisis.
Prosecutors allege senior politicians and police, hoping to stem mounting violence, held talks with mob bosses after anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife and three bodyguards were killed by a mafia bomb planted under a road in 1992.
The state’s willingness to enter into talks after Falcone’s murder actually encouraged further bombings, the prosecutors say, including the one that killed another anti-mafia magistrate, Paolo Borsellino, two months later.
At the time of the bombings, Napolitano was president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. He became Italy’s president in 2006.
Prosecutors want to ask the head of state about a 2012 letter to him from his legal adviser Loris D’Ambrosio that implied Napolitano had known about the talks.
The media were not allowed to cover the proceedings, sparking protests from Italian journalists, and those present at the closed-door hearing were not allowed to record it.
About 40 people – including prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers – attended the hearing in a large hall in the president’s 16th century Quirinale Palace in central Rome.