Loophole Sets Mafiosi Free in Italy : Crime: Court cites provisions of a revised code of justice. Government officials are outraged. Releases include onetime boss of bosses.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His bodyguards long ago decreed that in violent Palermo there is only one bar in which anti-Mafia magistrate Giuseppe Ayala can safely take his midmorning espresso: on the ground floor of the main courthouse in the Sicilian capital.

It was there one morning this week that Ayala unexpectedly found himself standing beside fellow coffee drinkers Pietro Senapa and Salvatore Rotolo. He had last seen them in court. Ayala was the prosecutor. They were the accused.

Senapa and Rotolo, each convicted of six murders, tortured rival mobsters and disintegrated their bodies in acid vats. At Ayala's demand, a judge sentenced them to life imprisonment.

The two were unexpectedly released from jail this week on a legal technicality that has enraged official Italy. All week, cell doors have been opening to free Mafiosi whose convictions were come-from-behind victories for courageous prosecutors.

On Thursday, a judge in Palermo ordered the release of the biggest Mafia prize of them all, a grizzled 66-year-old Sicilian squire named Michele Greco, called the Pope, and described by police as organized crime's onetime boss of bosses.

The releases, in the judgment of chief anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, are "an incomprehensible and sensational mistake." Italian commentators call it a grave blow to a sagging government anti-Mafia campaign, and an indictment of the molasses-slow Italian judicial system.

Last Monday, the Italian Supreme Court ordered the release of 41 convicted Mafia felons among the 328 gangsters sentenced at the end of a huge trial in Palermo in 1987, which, in retrospect, marked the high water mark of the government's uphill drive against the Mafia.

Supreme Court Justice Corrado Carnevale ruled that provisions of a revised code of justice in effect since October, 1989, also applied to cases predating the law. The new law orders the release of defendants if more than 12 months elapse between their last court sentence and the conclusion of their appeal trial, the next step in the legal process. Under the old law, the state had 18 months to complete the proceeding.

Of the 41 Mafiosi affected by the decision, a number had been released for other reasons, and some are being held under house arrest. In all, though, 28 should be released by the end of the week, among them convicted murderers and drug traffickers.

"We go all out to arrest a boss and this is the result. And all because the machinery of justice in Italy is slow and inefficient," complained angry Interior Minister Vincenzo Scotti.

Virginio Rognoni, who was justice minister at the time of the 1987 trial and is now defense minister, said that the law was intended as human rights protection to prevent prolonged imprisonment without trial.

"I am convinced that there has been an error in the application of the law," Rognoni said in a letter to the Rome newspaper La Repubblica.

The released prisoners are under court order to report to police daily, and some, like Greco, are being required to settle in small towns outside of Palermo province. Still, there is concern that old debts may now come due on Palermo streets.

"Statistics show that the majority of Mafia crimes are committed by people who are out because of technicalities or because they are on probation," Scotti said.

Despite attempts at overhaul, Italy's justice system has proved as resistant to modernization as most of its other public services. The counterpoint to leaky jails, Italians complain, is a steady procession of assassinations of policemen and judges committed to fighting the Mafia.

The most popular television show in Italian history, "The Octopus," chronicled an honest policeman's struggle against the many tentacled Mafia. He is gunned down on the street in the last episode.

As newly released Mafiosi flock to family parties in Sicily this week, dispirited Mafia fighters also must consider the imminent departure of Falcone, their driving force for the last 12 years. He is being reassigned to the justice ministry in Rome, a promotion, officials insist.

Greco got his good news Thursday in Palermo's Uccardione Prison, where he has been serving eight years for organizing the 1983 murder of an anti-Mafia judge. Prosecutors also say that Greco led a Mafia family that murdered Army Gen. Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, then Sicily's chief Mafia fighter, in 1982.

Appearing in a Palermo court this week, Greco told Italian reporters that he had been too engrossed reading the works of 13th-Century philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas to have paid much attention to all the fuss.

The chagrined Italian government announced Thursday that, for security reasons, Ayala, one of the magistrates most feared by the Mafia, would also be transferred to a desk job in Rome.

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