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Mobsters’ Escape Embarrasses Italy

June 24, 1998

ROME (AP) _ ``Ciao ciao e grazie″ _ ``Bye-bye and thanks″ _ said the note left by two escaping mobsters in a tunnel that led from a courtroom’s steel-barred holding cage to freedom.

Monday’s bold escape of defendants Giuseppe Autorino and Ferdinando Cesarano during their trial in the southern city of Salerno was the latest embarrassment to Italy’s justice system, and opposition politicians demanded Wednesday that the justice and interior ministers resign.

``Swiss cheese courtroom, the police chief pays,″ Rome’s daily Il Messaggero headlined its account about the first head to roll for the escape _ that of Salerno’s top police official.

The defendants, already serving life terms for a 1983 murder and other crimes, were on trial on charges of Mafia association.

Just last month, Premier Romano Prodi’s coalition survived a no-confidence vote against the government ministers, then under fire for the escapes of a wheelchair-using Mafia boss and a financier freed pending appeal.

According to news accounts of the latest escape, accomplices had earlier cut a hole into the floor of the cage.

The hole, which had been covered, connected to the tunnel, which led to a farm field right next to the courtroom.

While other defendants in the cage blocked the view of dozens of police guards, lawyers, spectators, prosecutors and judges, the mobsters slipped away.

Police said they saw Autorino and Cesarano emerge on the field and flee in a waiting car.

Found inside the tunnel were guns and grenades, as well as candle stubs and empty cigarette packs, indicating digging had gone on for some time.

Months ago, Italy changed its law so that mobsters kept in top-security prisons could testify by videocamera, thus avoiding potentially dangerous transfers to courtrooms. But that wasn’t done in this case _ despite a request by prosecutors for video equipment in the courtroom, nothing had been installed.

The escape was similar to another of Italy’s courtroom scandals.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, during an era of terrorism that bloodied Italy, terrorism suspects also surrounded two fellow defendants in a courtroom cage _ not to hide their escape, but to give them privacy to have sex.

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