The dominant political figure of post-World War II Italy, Giulio Andreotti, went on trial here Tuesday, accused of having links with the Mafia and, through it, to an array of crimes including extortion, misuse of power, obstruction of justice and murder.
The long-awaited trial began amid tight security in a heavily fortified courtroom filled with more than 200 journalists. The defendant sat stoically at the front-row defense table, flanked by his three lawyers.
Over a period of seven hours, the three-judge panel hearing the case listened to a series of procedural arguments before adjourning until Oct. 6 to weigh a defense motion to move the trial away from the Sicilian capital to Rome.
During the procedural wrangling, Andreotti's attorney Franco Coppi asked the court the question to which all of Italy and much of Europe would like the answer: "Is it possible that a man who has for 50 years represented Italy would, at the same time, swear fidelity to the Cosa Nostra?"
The courtroom phase of the case against Andreotti, already dubbed Italy's "trial of the century," follows more than three years of formal investigation by state prosecutors.
The result of that investigation, prosecutors claim, is a case that includes more than 400 witnesses and will prove that Andreotti became intimately linked to the Mafia, met with the mob's most powerful figures and was involved in crimes--including ordering the murder of an Italian investigative journalist in 1979.
The slain journalist, Mino Pecorelli, is said to have had evidence linking Andreotti to a bribery scandal and illegal contributions to the politician's Christian Democratic Party.
Andreotti, 76, denies the charges against him, dismissing them alternatively as a Mafia attempt to destroy him because of his governments' tough actions against organized crime or as an elaborate plot by unnamed enemies.
"In 50 years, I've never done anything that smells of the Mafia," he told reporters during a break in Tuesday's proceedings.
The trial is expected to be a marathon affair, with some observers predicting it could require two years or more to complete. If convicted, Andreotti could face a jail term of several years.
He entered the court Tuesday surrounded by security guards and lawyers a few minutes before the proceedings began, giving a tense smile to the small army of assembled reporters before taking his seat.
During much of the opening session, the former premier kept his gaze on the judges seated in front of him, took occasional notes and sucked on pieces of candy he pulled from a pack on the table in front of him.
Hunched and silent, the man who led seven Italian governments and served in the Cabinets of more than 25 others seemed a sharply diminished figure--no longer master of the events unfolding around him.
During his years in power, Andreotti was known as "the old fox"--a devious, cunning leader with an acid tongue and quick wit who won the grudging respect of Italians and foreigners alike for his ability to wield power and outsmart his political foes.
Because of his dominance over a period spanning nearly five decades and the long-suspected links between his Christian Democrats and the Mafia, the case against Andreotti is also one against Italy's postwar democratic system.
It also marks the culmination of the Italian judiciary's 15-year fight to control the Cosa Nostra and its mainland cousins in Naples, Calabria and Apulia.
Collectively, these organizations are believed to have consistently bent the political process to their will and to have skimmed off between $12 billion and $15 billion a year through trade in illegal drugs, arms smuggling and large cuts of public works contracts. The power of the organizations has also stemmed from their ability to deliver large blocks of votes at election time.
"The trial is a test," said Palermo's mayor, Leoluca Orlando, who came to office on a staunchly anti-Mafia platform. "If he gets off, everyone will think that it's OK for politicians to deal with the Mafia."
After listening to prosecution arguments, which in part referred to the impact of media coverage on the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles, the judges denied Italian television the right to carry live coverage of the trial.
"In the O.J. Simpson murder trial . . . television coverage has lent sensation to the case," said prosecutor Roberto Scarpinato. "Television doesn't document objectively, [it] transforms reality into representations of something different."
After a brief recess, presiding Judge Francesco Ingargiola ruled that pool cameras from the state-owned RAI national television network could be present in the court but that broadcasts of material from the trial would be restricted to taped transmissions. Live radio coverage and still photographs of the trial, however, were approved.
The decision against live TV coverage was seen as a setback for Andreotti, whose lawyers believed the image of the former premier under attack from prosecutors would generate sympathy for their client.
Janet Stobart of The Times' Rome Bureau contributed to this report.