When an international arrest warrant was issued for Marcello Dell’Utri on Thursday, he could have been forgiven for not being too worried. The Italian politician – who for the past four decades has allegedly been the link between former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the Sicilian mafia – had already arrived in Lebanon, a country where he was confident he faced no chance of arrest. Indeed, reports in the Italian media suggest that far from going underground Dell’Utri continued to think he was in the clear – using his mobile phone and credit cards despite knowing they could lead investigators straight to him.
So when, on Friday morning, police arrived at his five-star Beirut hotel to arrest him, it must have been something of a shock. How he got his assumptions so wrong appears to be a story that says as much about Lebanon’s politics as it does about Italy’s.
Catching an untouchable
72-year-old Dell’Utri has long been seen as among the untouchables of Italian politics. Believed to have been the key figure in persuading media tycoon Berlusconi to enter politics in 1994, he was a co-founder of his political party Forza Italia. The two men’s relationship, however, stretched back far further – with the Sicilian working as a manager for Berlusconi’s media and real estate businesses since the 1970s.
As Berlusconi’s star rose, so did Dell’Utri’s. By 1996 he had become an MP and three years later he joined the European Parliament. In 2001, at the peak of his powers, he became a member of the Italian Senate.
Yet even by then the law was starting to catch up with him. Allegations of involvement with the Sicilian mafia were growing in depth and strength and in 2004 he was convicted on the loose charge of ‘mafia association’, a crime that brought with it a nine year jail sentence. Yet with Berlusconi in power, his political connections enabled him to avoid serving even one day in jail. Indeed, his criminal convictions were not even enough to derail his political career – he was reelected to the Senate in both 2006 and 2008.
By the start of this decade, however, Berlusconi’s political power had waned. No longer the country’s political leader, he has spent less time fighting elections in recent years than he has contesting allegations of various crimes, including corruption and having sex with underage prostitutes. Indeed he has now been banned from holding public office, a decision he is seeking to overturn.
For Dell’Utri, the loss of his most powerful ally appears to have hit him hard. Last year, it was announced that he was stepping down from politics to fight legal cases against him. It was also around this time that he is alleged to have started plotting his escape to Lebanon.
Flight to Beirut
The exact details of this journey are not known, yet it is possible he considered being smuggled from Israel. Italian police bugging a Rome restaurant for a separate case allegedly intercepted a key conversation in which Dell’Utri’s brother discussed Marcello’s attempts to escape the country. During the conversation his friend advised him to go via Israel so as to avoid detection. “If I were Marcello I would take a direct flight to Tel Aviv and then go by car, even if this means driving for two and a half hours,” he says. This route, his friend cautions, would decrease the risk of leaving traces, making it harder for Interpol to pursue him.
Yet it seems unlikely, given Dell’Utri’s rather open behavior in Lebanon, that he was smuggled. Indeed it seems that he felt he had strong political cover. In the same bugged conversation Dell’Utri’s brother is believed to have said “his plan is to go to Lebanon because in that city [Beirut] Marcello would find himself at ease as he has been there already and he knows it, it has a vibrant culture and it would be good for him.”
Why he believed he was safe is a matter of great speculation in Italy. It appears that Dell’Utri felt he had enough political cover in the country to avoid extradition. Leading Italian newspaper La Repubblica and weekly L’Espresso reported that a friend of Dell’Utri, Roman entrepreneur Gennaro Mokbel (who was last year sentenced to 15 years in prison for fraud), put him in touch with a prominent Lebanese politician. This contact, who Repubblica alleged may have been one of the country’s senior Christian leaders, was due to help Dell’Utri settle in the country and provide him political support.
Moreover, a report in Repubblica yesterday alleged that Dell’Utri had been sent to Lebanon by Berlusconi to support Amine Gemayel’s upcoming bid for the presidency. In fact, Berlusconi is alleged to have claimed that Russian Premier Vladimir Putin asked him to support Gemayel’s bid. Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb Party and a former President during the civil war, has not yet publicly responded to the claims and was not immediately available for comment.
Whether or not these claims are true, it appears clear that Dell’Utri was convinced that he would be safe from prosecution. Although Italy and Lebanon have an extradition treaty which has been applied in the past, it was widely expected that it would not be in this case. Indeed, so confident was he that when the arrest warrant was announced on Thursday Dell’Utri’s lawyer Giuseppe Di Peri declared publicly that he didn’t know whether the extradition ruling applied to “mafia association” – the crime he stands accused of, as it may not be defined by Lebanese laws.
So far the general attitude in the Italian media at the arrest has been incredulous – it was widely expected that he would remain in Beirut without arrest indefinitely. It is certainly true that Lebanon has a mixed record on extradition, with many cases taking years before a decision is made. The speed of this case is therefore even more of a shock.
It remains unclear how Dell’Utri got it so wrong. Was he mistakenly given the impression he had political backing to avoid extradition, or did major powers intervene to force Lebanon’s hand? It is as yet not certain, but either way, it is clear that he severely miscalculated and it may cost him dearly.