Italian PM sacks Salvini ally suspected of corruption and mafia ties

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Wednesday sacked a graft-tainted junior minister close to populist leader Matteo Salvini, averting a government crisis weeks ahead of European elections.

Italian PM sacks Salvini ally suspected of corruption and mafia ties
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) with his deputy and interior minister, Matteo Salvini. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Infrastructure and transport undersecretary Armando Siri, a member of coalition partner the League, is alleged to have accepted a €30,000 bribe — or the promise of it — from a businessman for promoting the interests of renewable energy companies.

Prosecutors also suspect the businessman of being in league with a Sicilian who has links to a Mafia boss.

Salvini, who is head of the anti-immigrant League party and deputy prime minister, had repeatedly insisted his ally Siri has done nothing wrong and should stay in his job.

Armando Siri. Photo: – CC BY 3.0

“There was a very frank and inhabitual cabinet discussion… but without citizens' trust, it would be hard to keep being the government of change,” Conte told journalists. 

“Today the cabinet decided, as proposed by the prime minister, to start the procedure to revoke secretary of state Armando Siri,” co-deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio said after the cabinet meeting.

“Not because he's guilty but simply because for us, if a corruption and mafia investigation is mentioned, [then] the political world must react before the judges do,” said Di Maio, who heads the Five Star Movement (M5S).

The M5S, which made “honesty” a keyword of its political campaign before being elected last year, had demanded Siri resign. Premier Conte had on Thursday said Siri should resign, but the latter had refused, with Salvini's backing.

READ ALSO: How Italy's Five Star Movement wants to change EU politics

The head of the Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

“Today this is a victory for Italians, the honest Italians who represent the vast majority of the population and who demand firmness in a country where corruption is a national emergency,” said Di Maio.

A visibly disappointed Salvini told journalists after the cabinet meeting that “trials are done by courts.” Italy is home to “60 million people who are innocent until proven guilty”, he said.

Italian politicians including tycoon and former premier Silvio Berlusconi have in the past used drawn-out court cases and the presumption of innocence to shield themselves from allegations of wrongdoing.

Salvini's League is hoping to progress in European parliament elections on May 26th and wants to keep its increasingly fragile ruling coalition intact until then, at least.


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How murdered judge Giovanni Falcone shaped Italy’s fight against the mafia

Thirty years ago, the murders of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino shook Italy and inspired a new generation of anti-mafia crusaders. But judges today warn that the same threat still exists.

How murdered judge Giovanni Falcone shaped Italy's fight against the mafia

When anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was killed by a car bomb 30 years ago in one of Italy’s most infamous murders, his death – and that two months later of fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino – marked a sea change in the fight against organised crime, prosecutors say.

“It was war and we all felt called up. No-one could afford to look away any longer,” says Palermo prosecutor, Marzia Sabella, remembering the murder of Falcone, his wife and bodyguards by the notorious Cosa Nostra mafia in Sicily on May 23, 1992.

READ ALSO: Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

The murders inspired a new generation of anti-mafia crusaders who, decades on, risk their own lives daily to carry on Falcone’s and Borsellino’s fight.

Sabella, then 27, was training to become a notary but after the massacre in Capaci, a small town in the province of Palermo, “I suddenly swerved off course towards Palermo’s prosecutors’ office”, she told AFP. “I have never regretted it.”

The deaths of Falcone and Borsellino stunned the country and resulted in tough new anti-mafia laws.

The judges were attributed with revolutionising the understanding of the mafia, working closely with the first informants and compiling evidence to prosecute hundreds of mobsters at the end of the 1980s in a groundbreaking ‘maxi trial’ – with similar trials involving hundreds of defendants still being carried out today.

“Thanks to Falcone and Borsellino, the Sicilian mafia became a notorious fact, not something that had to be proved to exist at every trial,” Sabella said.

Giovanni Falcone (2nd left) surrounded by his bodyguards on October 21st, 1986. Photo by GERARD FOUET / AFP

Judge Roberto Di Bella – who obtained his first posting the day before Borsellino and his police escort were blown to pieces on July 19, 1992 – said the murders “prompted nationwide protests… and a decisive cultural change”.

The 58-year-old, now a judge at the juvenile court in Catania, was assigned an armed escort in 2016 after threats to his life, “which was very difficult, particularly at the start”.

The mob felt able to target Falcone because he was perceived to be isolated after being snubbed for the post of chief magistrate in Palermo in 1988, according to judges, who warn of repeating the same mistakes today.

Those concerns prompted a backlash this month over the failure to name Nicola Gratteri, Italy’s foremost ‘Ndrangheta combatant, as national chief anti-mafia prosecutor.

Choosing someone else “would come across as a dangerous institutional distancing from such an exposed magistrate in the eyes of the mafia”, judge Nino Di Matteo argued before the vote.

It risked creating “the conditions for isolation, the most fertile ground for murders and massacres”, he warned.

READ ALSO: The life and death of Sicilian anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino

Giovanni Melillo, an institutional favourite from Foggia, home to Italy’s fourth-largest mafia, was picked instead.

Security services have reportedly just stumbled across fresh plans to assassinate Gratteri, who has been under police guard for 30 years.

Amid fears that not enough is being done, a trade union called last week for a “civilian escort” to help protect and support him.

Falcone’s murder was just one of a string of deadly attacks which abruptly stopped in 1993.

Since then, the Cosa Nostra has been hit repeatedly by mass arrests – but though it has lost much of its power, it is far from vanquished.

And while investigators concentrated on Sicily, other underworld groups flourished, most notably the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta.

Sabella compared the mafia to coronavirus: “If you drop your guard it spreads like before or worse than before.

“If we dropped our guard even for just one month, we’d have to start all over again, collecting the dead from the streets.”