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Craxi commemorated at Senate

But ceremony contested by his chief accuser

19 January, 17:01
Craxi commemorated at Senate (ANSA) - Rome, January 19 - A ceremony at the Senate commemorating controversial former premier Bettino Craxi on the 10th anniversary of his death on Tuesday unleashed a barrage of criticism from an opposition leader who led investigations against him during the 1990s Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandal.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi and a host of ministers attended the event, part of a drive to restore the image of the former Socialist premier, who died in Tunisia in self-imposed exile to avoid prosecution in Italy on corruption charges.

To many Italians, Craxi is a symbol of the institutionalised system of bribery that was uncovered by magistrates in the early 1990s and which toppled Italy's old political guard.

"We're not providing a clearer picture of those years but a falser and more distorted one," said the leader of the Italy of Values (IdV) Party, Antonio Di Pietro, a former prosecutor in the Milan 'Clean Hands' investigations that toppled the Socialist and Christian Democrat parties.

"We're celebrating a runaway crook," he added.

''This beatification of a convicted criminal in an institutional setting like the Senate is really shameful," added the IdV's Senate Whip, Felice Belisario.

But Senate Speaker Renato Schifani told a crowded assembly that Craxi had been "a sacrificial victim" who had not been given "any breaks" and had "paid more than anyone else for the faults of the entire political system of that period".

Former president and now life Senator Francesco Cossiga also praised Craxi as "a courageous and upstanding man who was fair to his international allies and was the guardian of national sovereignty".

On the eve of the ceremony, President Giorgio Napolitano acknowledged that Craxi had left an "indelible mark" in Italian politics.

In a message to his widow Anna, Napolitano stressed that though Craxi's legacy was still a mixture of "light and shadow" his contribution to shaping Italian foreign policy in Europe and the rest of the world "could not be challenged".

Napolitano said that he was still "shaken" whenever he recalled Craxi's long illness and "lonely death away from Italy".

The president recalled that he and Craxi had enjoyed "frank and fair relations whether we were in agreement or not".


Craxi fled to Tunisia in 1994 amid an increasing number of corruption charges.

Accused of accepting illegal party funding to the tune of millions of dollars, he was convicted in absentia in two cases but faced a number of other probes and at one point, had amassed jail terms totalling almost 25 years.

Subsequent court rulings overturned or modified some of the convictions.

He remained in self-imposed exile in Tunisia until his death from heart failure in January 2000.

Despite the long illness he suffered in the last years of his life, Craxi always refused to return to his native country unless he could do so as a free man.

In a speech to the House before leaving Italy, Craxi defended himself by arguing that, since all politicians were guilty, punishing individual guilt was unfair.

''Everybody knew, everybody was silent. Who will cast the first stone?'', he asked.

One of the most enduring memories of his final period in Italy was in March 1993, on the day parliament voted to give him immunity from prosecution. Romans gathered outside Craxi's hotel and showered him with coins in the street - a traditional show of contempt for convicted thieves.

The so-called Tangentopoli or Bribesville investigations were triggered on February 17, 1992, when Milan prosecutors arrested Mario Chiesa, a close associate of Craxi and director of an old people's home, as he was pocketing a bribe from a cleaning firm.

Magistrates subsequently uncovered a vast web of bribery linking business to politics and the public administration. The once dominant Christian Democrat and Socialist parties were swept away in the ensuing scandal.

Within two years of the start of Bribesville, parliament received requests for immunity to be lifted on 619 parliamentarians, of whom 321 were investigated.

Eight ex-premiers and some 5,000 businessmen and politicians were charged. To date, there have been 1,233 convictions but none of those convicted is still in jail.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi has repeatedly spoken of his friendship for Craxi and his disgust at the way he was abandoned by political allies during the 'Clean Hands' investigations.

He has said that Craxi was ''wickedly abandoned'' by people who had formerly revered and supported him, while his political adversaries had not returned the respect he had shown them during his career.

''Not allowing him back for treatment was a dramatic sign of how far blind moralism and political backbiting are from real feelings of Christian love,'' Berlusconi once said.

Craxi's daughter Stefania, now foreign undersecretary, insists he was a martyr to Italian justice and a scapegoat for the Bribesville years and has long spearheaded a campaign to rehabilitate him.

She told reporters that Berlusconi had decided not to speak at the Senate commemoration to avoid sparking further polemics.

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