Italy's Berlusconi drops allies accused of mafia links

Tue Jan 22, 2013 1:35pm EST
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By James Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has dropped allies accused of corruption and mafia connections as election candidates, in a bid to shake off some of the scandal dogging his party.

Nicola Cosentino, a former junior economy minister whose power base is the heartland of the Camorra - the Naples mafia - was among a handful of members of parliament deselected from the party list for a general election on February 24-25.

"It was a very painful decision," Berlusconi told his own Italia 1 television station, blaming the need to drop Cosentino on "politically biased prosecutors".

Cosentino has denied any wrongdoing and party officials said he was dropped only to avoid the issue being exploited by electoral rivals.

The move is a political gamble that may win the People of Freedom (PDL) party some votes but also risks losing support among the local power base of deselected politicians.

"This choice does not imply a judgment that those involved are guilty," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, head of the PDL group in the lower house of parliament.

"I continue to believe that Nicola Cosentino is innocent and has been the target of an extremely harsh campaign by media and judges," he said.

Cosentino, who was forced to resign from Berlusconi's last government in 2011 over an influence-peddling scandal, is under investigation for association with the Camorra in the Casal di Principe region near Naples.   Continued...

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures before the taping of the talk show "Telecamere" at Rai television in Rome January 11, 2013. REUTERS/Remo Casilli