Disgraced Late Italian Leader Rehabilitated

By: Alessandra Rizzo - AP Writer
By: Alessandra Rizzo - AP Writer

ROME (AP) - Bettino Craxi died 10 years ago in disgrace, a broken politician in self-imposed exile at the Tunisian resort where he fled to escape a corruption conviction.

But the long-serving former Italian premier is today undergoing
an unlikely rehabilitation - with powerful politicians waxing
appreciative on the anniversary of his death Tuesday and plans
afoot to name a street after him in Milan.

The posthumous reversal of fortune, some critics contend, says
much about the hold on Italy enjoyed by his friend and one-time
protege - Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who owes his massive media
fortune in part to legislation that Craxi pushed through.

Berlusconi, himself, continues to command widespread popularity
despite being targeted in several corruption cases, including one
currently going through the courts. Another case currently pending
against Berlusconi concerns accusations of tax fraud.

At the time of Craxi's death, the downfall of such a powerful
politician was widely seen as the culmination of the "Clean
Hands" investigation led by a group of Milan prosecutors crusading
to stamp out chronic government corruption - and which eventually
swept aside an entire ruling class.

The hope inspired by those months in the 1990s, however, has
largely faded - replaced by a certain apathy in which many Italians
appear to feel that corruption is simply part of political life.

Other Italians are furious about the former leader's
rehabilitation, as well as the direction Italy has taken under
Berlusconi, who has served as premier three times since the 1990s.

Some activists in Rome waved leaflets Tuesday with a photo
combining the faces of the two leaders and reading "Berluscraxi."
A group rallied at the place that saw one of Craxi's lowest
moments: a hotel in downtown Rome where in 1993 angry citizens
hurled coins at him.

Berlusconi has always denied wrongdoing in his corruption
probes, saying he is the victim of a politically motivated
vendetta. In October, a court overturned his immunity as premier,
opening the way for him to go on trial on charges that he paid
bribes to obtain false testimony to protect his business interests.

In earlier cases, he has either been acquitted or seen cases
against him dismissed because the statute of limitations had
expired.

In the 1980s, at the height of his power, Craxi aided
Berlusconi's rise, mostly through legislation that helped
Berlusconi break the monopoly by state TV and build a media empire.
In the power vacuum that followed the Clean Hands probes,
Berlusconi stepped into politics and became Italy's dominant
political force with a populist message of optimism and renewal.

Berlusconi did not comment at Tuesday's commemoration but he has
never made a secret of his friendship with the late Socialist
leader. Berlusconi's close aide and Senate speaker, Renato
Schifani, said Craxi was the "sacrificial victim" of the Clean
Hands corruption probes.

Craxi's daughter - Stefania Craxi, who serves as foreign
undersecretary in the current government - also attended the
conference.

Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano, whose role is largely
ceremonial, said the nation must continue to tackle corruption.

"We must look at the persisting lack of answers on the issues
of financing the political system and the fight against corruption
in public life," Napolitano said in a letter this week to Craxi's
widow.

Plans to dedicate a street to Craxi in Milan have drawn the ire
of critics, who say that a man who died a fugitive from justice
should not be so honored. Chief among them is Antonio Di Pietro, a
former top prosecutor in the Clean Hands probes.

"Naming a street after him could be done on one condition: that
what he was - a politician, a crook and a fugitive - be written
next to his name," said Di Pietro, now a politician with a small
but influential leftist party.

"If somebody wants to rewrite history, they must take on the
responsibility of doing so."

Craxi served as Italian premier between 1983 and 1987, a
remarkable feat in a country known for political instability.

During those years, he stood up to the United States in 1985,
refusing to hand over the Palestinian commandos who hijacked the
Achille Lauro cruise ship and killed an elderly American passenger.
He insisted they be tried in Italy, but he also let the purported
ringleader slip out of the country.

He also defied Italian communists - at the time a powerful force
in Italian politics - by allowing NATO to install nuclear-tipped
missiles in Sicily to counter a Soviet missile buildup.

In his letter, Napolitano praised Craxi as a bold political
leader who sought a "more assertive" role for Italy within Rome's
traditional alliance with the United States.

After his conviction, Craxi was sentenced to more than five
years in prison. He maintained he was an innocent victim of a
vendetta by jealous politicians, and fled to Tunisia.

He became the most illustrious name to fall in the scandals,
which uncovered a political system where politicians would
systematically demand and receive kickbacks.

Craxi died on Jan. 19, 2000, in Hammamet, a resort town near
Tunis, aged 65.


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