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CORRUPTION : Slow, Uneven Pace of Justice in Italy's 'Kickback City' Stirs Criticism


ROME — A few weeks ago, Diego Curto, 68, ranked among Italy's most senior judges. Now, having confessed to receiving about $250,000 in bribes, he languishes in solitary confinement, under relentless interrogation from fellow magistrates unraveling a huge skein of nationwide corruption.

Even as arrests continue, Italy's unprecedented kickback scandal is entering a volatile new phase. Cheers from a nation outraged by the venality of its politicians and business leaders are now mixed with controversy over the uneven quality and slow pace of justice.

It's been almost two years since Milan judges first exposed a systemic web of payoffs in which business people illegally financed Italian political parties--and individual politicians--in exchange for public contracts. More than 2,000 members of Italy's elite have been implicated so far in the scandal that Italians call Tangentopoli (Kickback City); no major political party and hardly a major company has been spared.

Antonio Di Pietro, the dogged magistrate who fathered the "mani pulite " ("clean hands") inquiry, is the most respected man in the country, according to a recent poll.

Amid the applause, criticism grows: There has yet to be a single trial. And critics say some magistrates abuse their powers, using preventive detention as coercion to extort confessions.

A few days of sharing cells with "common" criminals has proved a great incentive to confession for fast-track captains of industry snared in the "clean hands" web. But every magistrate has his own techniques. Some prominent bribe givers and takers have commuted comfortably between courthouse confessionals and house arrest.

Others, like Curto, the first member of the judiciary arrested in the inquiry, have made confessions that only whetted investigators' appetites for more information. They stay in jail if the magistrates think they may flee or tamper with evidence.

"Using prison to make someone who is under investigation talk is against the inviolable rights of man," complained President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro not long ago.

Politicians, particularly, are discomfited by magistrates' resort to hard jail time, leaving cynics to note that the weight of the law has fallen heaviest on the businessmen givers of bribes--and not on the politician takers. Company presidents, but not a single major politician, have been frequent guests at Milan's grim San Vittore Prison.

Gabriele Cagliari spent four months at San Vittore where one of his three cellmates was a cocaine dealer. In the last of those months, nobody even bothered to interrogate him, although he was the former president of the state energy conglomerate called ENI, which, he confessed, had long been a multimillion-dollar source of illegal funds for ruling political parties.

One hot summer morning in July, Cagliari, 67, tied a plastic bag over his head, becoming the ninth Tangentopoli suicide. The 10th came on the day of Cagliari's funeral: Raul Gardini, 60, onetime ebullient head of the giant, corruption-tainted Ferruzzi-Montedison chemical conglomerate, shot himself. He was to have been arrested that day.

Now, from the grave, Cagliari leads an accusatory chorus against what he called in an eloquent suicide note "psychological torture" at the hands of a justice system "on a path toward authoritarianism."

Francesco Saverio Borrelli, the chief "clean hands" magistrate in Milan, rejects accusations of arbitrary justice and says that magistrates have moved with remarkable dispatch, given the mass of evidence and number of accused. But he agrees with a growing national sense that it is time his investigating magistrates took their cases to court.

"The first phase of Tangentopoli is ending," he told reporters this week, promising trials by year's end.

Yet Borrelli, like other authority figures, argues that judicial resolution of the scandal must come sooner rather than later if the nation is to recover confidence in its institutions.

At the current molasses pace, it could take up to seven years before anybody begins a jail sentence. Too long, say critics like Luciano Violante, a former judge who heads the anti-Mafia commission in Italy's Parliament.

Violante's proposals: Reform the system to allow plea-bargaining and sentence reduction in return for information and restitution of stolen goods and money. Do not necessarily demand jail time, but ban the guilty from any future role in public life.

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