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Prison Sentence for Former Italian PM Condemned - 2002-11-18

Italian politicians are condemning a 24-year prison sentence handed down to former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti as politically motivated. An appeals court sentenced the former prime minister Sunday for complicity in the 1979 murder of a journalist, overturning an earlier acquittal in the case.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said "the justice system has gone mad." He said the ruling was yet another example of politicized magistrates attempting to rewrite Italian history. His words appeared on the front pages of major newspapers in Italy.

Mr. Berlusconi has been accusing the judicial system of being full of biased magistrates who persecute chosen victims. The prime minister, who says judges are politically prejudiced against him, says a reform of the judicial system is urgently needed.

Mr. Andreotti's past political colleagues from the former Christian Democrats party were also outraged by the verdict. One of them said the sentence was "incredible" and made it difficult to still believe in an impartial justice system.

Marco Follini, the leader of the Christian Democratic Center, one of the parties making up the current coalition government, expressed his solidarity with Mr. Andreotti.

That Andreotti may have ordered a killing is hard to believe, even for his most ruthless and bitter political opponents, Mr. Follini said, adding that this sentence is the expression of a justice system turned on its head, walking with its head on the ground and its feet up in the air.

Mr. Andreotti, who has been prime minister seven times and an influential political leader in Italy, was found guilty of conspiring with the mafia to kill a journalist in 1979. He has always maintained he is innocent and the target of political enemies and mafia members, who want to punish him for his past crackdowns against organized crime.

Sunday's ruling overturned an acquittal three years ago by a lower court. The reasons for the ruling will be issued in 90 days. Mr. Andreotti's lawyers are likely to appeal the verdict in Italy's highest court. He only risks being sent to jail once his appeals have been exhausted.