Rome, January 24 - Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri on Friday promised the Italian government would protect magistrates from a recent string of mafia threats on their lives.
Several investigators have been threatened by Italy's mafias recently.
The Calabria-based 'Ndrangheta and the Naples-based Camorra have both kept up a stream of threatening messages against Italian officials and investigators. But the renewed and unexpected menace of the Sicilian Mafia has overshadowed them and grabbed the headlines this week.
Former Anti-Mafia chief Pietro Grasso, now Senate Speaker, and lead Palermo prosecutor Nino Di Matteo are among those in the Mob's crosshairs.
In the most chilling incident, jailed former Cosa Nostra boss of bosses Toto' Riina was secretly recorded ordering a hit on Di Matteo.
Cancellieri said "the whole government will not fail to ensure the most adequate level of protection" against the likes of Riina, who is serving life for his part in the 1992 murders of anti-Mafia crusading magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. The chief prosecutor at the supreme Court of Cassation, Gianfranco Ciani, added that the authorities would respond to threats "unanimously and with the utmost firmness".
Cancellieri and Ciani were speaking at a ceremony marking the start of Italy's judicial year.
Di Matteo reponded for the first time Thursday to Riina's threats, recorded with a listening device placed in his cell.
The comments were not veiled threats but explicit orders to kill, he said.
Riina still had a big say in running Cosa Nostra even though he has been in jail since 1993, Di Matteo said.
"I don't think they can be called mere threats, they are homicidal intentions outlined to a fellow inmate probably because they would be taken outside in order to be carried out," Di Matteo told Italian radio.
"Still today Riina can certainly try to exercise a command role (in Cosa Nostra), He said. On January 20 prosecutors entered into trial evidence wiretaps of prison conversations between Riina, 83, and another jailed mobster, in which 'The Beast' gloats over past murders and plots future ones.
The conversations held in November last year between Riina and boss Alberto Lorusso from the Puglia-based Sacra Corona Unita mafia were entered into evidence for an ongoing Palermo trial into alleged secret negotiations between the Italian State and the Mafia two decades ago.
Riina is in maximum security prison in Milan for crimes including ordering the Falcone and Borsellino slayings and is watching the trial on video.
The shocking Falcone and Borsellino murders were among the crimes that allegedly induced the State to enter into secret talks with Cosa Nostra in a bid to stop attacks after a long campaign of violence that included blowing judges and prosecutors up with carbombs.
"We must take measures for you people. Ones that will make you dance the samba", Riina said of the trial judges in a wiretapped November 16 chat with Lorusso.
"Let's organize this thing. Let's make it real big", he adds about deputy prosecutor Di Matteo, threatening to kill him "like a tuna fish".
"Because Di Matteo is not leaving. They just gave him more bodyguards. So if possible, an execution like back in the day in Palermo....this prosecutor and this trial are driving me crazy".
Riina goes on to gloat over the July 29, 1983, carbombing murder of prosecuting magistrate Rocco Chinnici, who put together an elite anti-Mafia investigative team, laying the groundwork for the 'Maxi Trial' against the Sicilian Mafia in 1986, and who frequently spoke out against the Mafia in schools and public appearances at a time when officials including some judges had avoided the word for many years.
Riina watched the explosion from afar, and saw the magistrate's body fly into the air and fall to the ground.
"I had fun thinking about that for a couple of years at least. I messed him up good", Riina said.
He also indulged in slinging vitriol at new Cosa Nostra leader Matteo Messina Denaro, also known as Diabolik, who is known to launder his ill-gotten gains - billions of which have been seized by police in recent years - through solar and wind energy investments.
"I hate to say this, but this Signore Messina Denaro, this fugitive who acts like he's the boss, doesn't give a toss about us. He dabbles in streetlights, but he'd look a whole lot better if he shone a light up his a**".
In other remarks made public Wednesday, Riina recalled that he had prepared a special "welcome" for Carabinieri General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, slain with his wife in September 1982, five months after being sent to Palermo to fight the Mafia.
Riina also said late Christian Democrat (DC) statesman Giulio Andreotti, who judges concluded helped the Mafia until 1980, was the "best" politician Italy ever had.
A month before being appointed Palermo prefect, Dalla Chiesa went public with prosecutors' long-held contentions that the Sicily section of Andreotti's DC faction was "the most infiltrated by the Mafia".
Andreotti's Sicily 'proconsul' Salvo Lima's assassination in early 1992 is believed to have marked the end of a truce, sparked by Riina's irate reaction to the confirmation of heavy Maxi-trial convictions.
Prosecutors said the Mob had been hoping Andreotti's man on the supreme court, 'sentence-killer' Corrado Carnevale, would get the sentences overturned as he had in the past.
BERLUSCONI 'CLASHES' WITH JUDICIARY 'HAVE SLOWED REFORM' In other remarks, Cancellieri said ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's feud with magistrates he claims have waged a 20-year war to eject him from politics is the biggest obstacle to much-needed reform of Italy's snail-paced and allegedly politicised justice system.
"The political and institutional clash that has been going on for some time has contributed to slowing the reforming process the country urgently needs," Cancellieri said at the ceremony marking the start of the judicial year.
Berlusconi, ejected from parliament last year on a tax-fraud ban he claims was improperly applied, has faced around 20 trials since entering politics in 1994.
Last August's tax-fraud sentence was his first binding conviction.
He and his revived Forza Italia (FI) party have continued protesting inside and outside parliament against allegedly left-wing magistrates they claim are out to get the three-time premier.
His other legal woes include a first-instance conviction for sex with an underage prostitute and he faces a trial for allegedly bribing a Senator to switch sides.
On Thursday FI erupted in fury once more when Berlusconi was placed under investigation for alleged witness-tampering in a trial of three associates found guilty of pimping for him.
Judicial reform is one of the items on the agenda of Premier Enrico Letta's revamped left-right government.
Letta, of the centre-left Democrat Party (PD), aims to speed up a system that frightens foreign firms from investing in Italy and take measures to cut overcrowding in Italy's jails, which are bursting at the seams amid a wave of suicides.
In a sign of what he said were more effective efforts to speed up the system, Chief Prosecutor Ciani said 64 magistrates had been placed under investigation for the unwarranted slowness of their trials. Cancellieri said the government would take a "pragmatic" approach to judicial reform, amid renewed calls from FI and Letta's smaller ally, the New Centre Right (NCD), to rein in an allegedly over-independent judiciary.
The NCD broke with Berlusconi after refusing to sink the government over the PD's insistence on applying a new anti-corruption law to evict the three-time premier and media magnate from the Senate.
But the breakaway group is expected to team up with its old boss in the next general election, against a centre-left coalition led by dynamic Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, the PD's recently elected leader.