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Angelo Amante

Politicians' mafia past stirs anger ahead of Sicily election

FILE PHOTO: Former prisoner and former Italian Senator Salvatore Cuffaro is seen during Pope Benedict XVI's pastoral visit to Rome's Rebibbia prison December 18, 2011. Cuffaro was arrested in January 2011 and served a seven year sentence for aiding and abetting the Mafia. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File Photo

Upcoming mayoral elections in the Sicilian capital of Palermo are being overshadowed by the involvement in the campaign of two prominent politicians who have spent time in jail for mafia-related crimes.

Salvatore 'Toto' Cuffaro, a former governor of the Mediterranean island, was sentenced in 2011 to almost five years for aiding and abetting the mob and informing its members of investigations about them.

Having paid his debt to society, he is now vigorously campaigning for the centre-right's candidate in Palermo for the June 12 election, an activism that has outraged prosecutors and the families of mafia victims.

Campaign posters have recently appeared on the city's streets with the symbols of some centre-right parties, including Cuffaro's, mysteriously modified to allege links with "Cosa Nostra," as the Sicilian mafia is known.

Cuffaro, a casually dressed 64-year-old with an affable manner, says he now has the same right as anyone else to participate in politics.

"The Italian constitution says that once a sentence is served ... you do not remain imprisoned all your life, you have the right and the duty to live," he told Reuters.

Gian Carlo Caselli, a former Palermo chief prosecutor, disagrees, pointing to the mafia's devastating impact on recent Italian and Sicilian history.

    "Acting as if nothing had happened, even after the sentence has expired, is a bit like erasing history, erasing the political and moral responsibility", Caselli said.  

The dispute is particularly fierce because it comes amid commemorations marking 30 years since anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were killed by bombs planted by Cosa Nostra, the most notorious mob crimes in Italy's history.

    Less is heard about the mafia now, but experts warn that the clans are prospering more than ever through racketeering and drug trafficking, while keeping a comfortably low profile.

"It seems like the mafia groups have disappeared, but it is exactly the opposite," best-selling anti-mafia author Roberto Saviano wrote in a newspaper column on Monday commemorating the 30th anniversary of Falcone's death.


In Palermo, Cuffaro is not the only mafia-tainted politician supporting the centre-right's candidate Roberto Lagalla, a university professor and former regional councillor under Cuffaro.

Marcello Dell'Utri, who spent four years in jail after a 2014 conviction for mafia collusion, publicly backed Lagalla's candidacy against an internal rival and was widely reported in Italian media as being his most influential sponsor.

Dell'Utri, a close aide to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has denied this, saying he only expressed "personal opinions" on who was the best candidate for the right.

After his release from prison in 2015, Cuffaro declared he was a reformed character and worked as a volunteer doctor in Burundi.

Between trips to Africa, he has tried to resurrect in Sicily the Christian Democrats (DC), the defunct party that dominated Italian politics for 45 years after World War II. In its heyday, elements of the DC's Sicilian arm were frequently linked to Cosa Nostra.

Maria Falcone, the sister of the assassinated judge and a well-known public figure, criticised Lagalla over his controversial backers.

"I have nothing to say against Cuffaro, against Dell'Utri, it's not my problem, they have served their sentences, but let's face it: they are not limpid," she said.

Lagalla denied any contacts with Dell'Utri and pledged to keep mobsters out of the city administration if he is elected.

"I put forward my candidature in full and absolute autonomy several months ago. Then all the centre-right parties chose to support me," he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante, editing by Gavin Jones and Bernadette Baum)

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