Italy's foremost postwar politician, former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, was acquitted today on charges of associating with the Mafia.
Andreotti, 80, who served seven times as prime minister, had been accused of using his governmental position to allow Sicily's Mafia to flourish in exchange for votes and favors.
"I am somewhat moved, even though I had faith in the judges," he said after the verdict in Palermo, which was broadcast on Italian television. He said he had to hurry home to his wife and was whisked away in a government car.
The verdict marked the end of Andreotti's judicial travails. Last month a jury in Perugia acquitted him of charges that he ordered the Mafia killing of an investigative journalist in 1979.
The stakes in the case were high. A conviction would have certainly meant the shameful end to a long and illustrious political career that the Rome-born Andreotti began building at an early age, weaving close ties with the Vatican and with his Christian Democratic Party, which ran Italy for four decades.
A conviction would have further damaged the reputation of the Christian Democrats, who disintegrated after a corruption scandal in the mid-1990s, and it would have heightened the widespread belief that party figures at least ignored Mafia activities in Sicily to secure political loyalty.
It is not likely that today's verdict will dispel doubts. But it immediately set off a predictable round of attacks on the controversial use of pentiti, or mobsters who turn state's witnesses, on whose testimony the Perugia and Palermo cases were based.
Prosecutors, who have the right to appeal the Palermo case, left the courtroom without talking with reporters. Andreotti's lawyer, Franco Coppi, said he hoped today's verdict was "the end of the story."
The Vatican said it was satisfied with the verdict.
The three-member panel deliberated for 10 days. They must issue a written statement within 90 days explaining whether the decision was made because evidence was missing, insufficient or contradictory.
The evidence, in fact, came from testimony from 350 witnesses, 27 of whom were Mafia turncoats. The most sensational testimony came from Baldassare Di Maggio, who told an astonished court in December 1996 that he had seen Andreotti greet the now-imprisoned Mafia boss Salvatore Riina with a kiss.
Andreotti has always denied all charges and any association with Mafia figures, and in his defiant self-defense told the judges: "If this were true, you shouldn't convict me, you should order me to be taken to a psychiatric hospital."
Di Maggio lost credibility when he admitted in court early this month that he had murdered someone while under the state's witness protection program.
Prosecutors also charged Andreotti with, among other things, pressuring the Supreme Court to modify mobsters' sentences, and making several trips to Sicily to meet with Mafia leaders, including Riina, Nitto Santapaolo, Stefano Bontade and Michele Greco.
Defense attorneys argued that the Mafia was making Andreotti pay for tough anti-organized crime legislation that was passed while he was prime minister.
Andreotti told the court that prosecutors hadn't been able to prove "a single shred of evidence."
CAPTION: Andreotti, shown outside his home in Rome, told judges that if the charges were true "you should order me to be taken to a psychiatric hospital."
CAPTION: Andreotti's defense attorneys smile as they leave a courtroom in Palermo, Sicily, after their client was acquitted of using his position to allow the Mafia to flourish in exchange for votes and favors.