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CRIME : Of Godfathers and ‘Godmothers’ : Italy: Momentous trial begins with ‘The Beast’ denying ties to the Mafia and many wondering about party ties to the feared group.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From behind bulletproof glass in a fortress courtroom, the Mafia’s boss of bosses is challenging justice and a nation’s conscience in one of Italy’s most important trials this century.

Salvatore Riina, captured in January after 23 years as a fugitive, made his debut before television cameras this week at the trial in Palermo for three of some 100 murders he is accused of ordering in a long, bloody reign as capo of the Cosa Nostra.

Facing prosecutors in an extravagantly guarded tribunal inside Ucciardone Prison, the wily 62-year-old Riina delivered an articulate 50-minute harangue on his innocence in the first session of what promises to be a long and riveting courtroom drama.

In the next session, for an hour he blandly fielded interrogators’ questions with an archetypal Mafia know-nothing defense he brought to court like a cloak: “I don’t know what Cosa Nostra is. I only heard people talk about it on television and in the newspapers.”

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In Riina’s self-possession, there is guile, contempt and between-the-lines intimidation of his accusers. The witness’s knowledgeable testimony belies his claim to be an uneducated workingman and leaves many Mafia specialists convinced he is still in charge.

Assuming that Italy’s most important prisoner is delivering a carefully prepared script, Mafia experts are rereading his testimony like cryptographers. They puzzle over what he meant by what he said--and didn’t say. They wonder what signals he is passing to his Mafiosi--and what threats he is delivering to the Mafia renegades who are his principal accusers.

Nothing of the sort, affirms Riina: “The newspapers have written that I wanted to send messages, but I’m not sending messages to anybody.”

What Toto (The Beast) Riina says is that he is a humble man with only a fifth-grade education who has supported his family as a $200-a-week construction worker. When money ran short, his poor old mother, who owns three boardinghouses, was always willing to help out, says the man the Italian government accuses of masterminding a multibillion-dollar international criminal syndicate.

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“I am a poor illiterate . . . just a poor farmer . . . all home, work, family and church, as they say in our parts. . . ,” Riina said the first day.

“All these years no one looked for me, no one stopped me, no one said anything to me. . . . I was a free citizen,” Riina told the court with exaggerated politeness. “I took planes, trains, the bus to Trapani not long ago.”

That Riina, Italy’s most wanted man, apparently lived most of his 23 fugitive years at home with his family in Palermo is Italy’s shame. After escaping from custody in 1969, he married in Sicily and had four children there while killing his way to the top of the Cosa Nostra.

The Italian government, which in 1987 sentenced Riina in absentia to life in prison for a series of murders, could not find a man who lived under the nose of Palermo police and whose whereabouts must have been known to hundreds of Sicilians.

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Or perhaps it did not want to find him, say critics, who argue that Riina’s belated arrest raises as many questions as it answers. They wonder aloud about the long-supposed but never-proved links between the Mafia and Italy’s ruling political parties.

Riina is filling in no blanks: “I know absolutely nothing about politics. I can’t influence political life because I don’t know any politician, no party bosses.”

Riina, who faces seven different trials, has carefully staked out his defense. He will attack the heart of the prosecution’s case by seeking to demolish the credibility of informers who have told the government most of what it knows about him.

“I don’t know any of these people. . . . The informers don’t bring proof,” he complained. “Once, informers sent anonymous letters. Today, they sign depositions and are allowed out of jail. They get money and villas.”

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Riina charges that the pentiti, or informers, are unreliable and stage-managed. He is demanding that his accusers, some of whom have been resettled in the United States under new names, confront him in court.

As Riina obviously intends, that is a daunting prospect for former criminals who have broken the Mafia’s time-honored code of silence to incriminate their boss, a figure of surpassing fear one informer has termed “God or the devil incarnate.”


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