Mafia probe rector wins poll

May 29, 1998

Diego Cuzzocrea, rector of Messina University in Sicily, has been re-elected following a first term marked by heightened anxieties over corruption investigations, intimidations, assaults and the Mafia-style murder of a professor.

The university is under investigation by the Anti-Mafia Commission. Professor Cuzzocrea's brothers control a pharmaceuticals firm, which is suspected of corruption in supplying material to the university medical school. Messina's academics re-elected him with 437 votes, 183 ahead of his closest rival.

Criminal events at Messina University have been in the media spotlight for months, and even the subject of a 90-minute television programme. In the programme, which alleged that the university was a prime source of profit for the Sicilian Mafia and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, a number of academics denounced intimidations and threats of violence. Professor Cuzzocrea refused to be interviewed.

University minister Luigi Berlinguer told parliament recently that there was something very wrong going on at Messina University. He said his ministry had repeatedly sent teams of inspectors there but cooperation from the university had been virtually non-existent.

But following Professor Cuzzocrea's re-election, Professor Berlinguer said:

"The point is that the minister does not have the legal powers to remove a rector or to prevent an election. But even if I had these powers I would not use them, because it would not be right to respond to the suspicion of illegality with an illegal act on the part of the minister."

Commenting on the majority of Messina academics who voted for Professor Cuzzocrea, Professor Berlinguer said: "I fear that some of the academics do not react with sufficient energy to the havoc in which they operate."

According to an Anti-Mafia Commission report, Messina University - with its 500 billion lire (Pounds 175 million) budget, largely financed by the state - has become a focus for organised crime and hard-pressed local businesses. The city is relatively poor and riddled with unemployment, while the university is an enormous source of public contracts.

The suspicion is that the university, positioned at the eastern end of Sicily just across the sea from Calabria, may be economically appetising enough to have aroused rivalry between the Sicilian and Calabrian Mafias.

This might explain the murder of Matteo Bottari, a professor who was a key figure in the lucrative medical school and son-in-law of Professor Cuzzocrea's predecessor, who was considered one of the rector's most faithful supporters.

In Messina, economic, political and judicial power is concentrated in a few families. A judge who has been transferred under suspicion of having "bogged down" investigations is brother-in-law to one of Professor Cuzzocrea's brothers. A local newspaper has compiled an extensive list of university employees, detailing their political affiliations and family connections.

As well as the murdered professor, who was shot dead in his car, in the past few years two others have been shot in the legs and many have been intimidated. One academic described how a group of men stopped him in the street and pushed him around while telling him to pass a certain student at an exam.

An investigation is also under way into the suspected "selling" of exam passes. In addition, two bombs have been set off in university buildings, several students have reported receiving threats, and one student caused a furore by writing his degree thesis on the presence of the Mafia and of Mafia-style business interests in the university and in Messina as a whole.

One MP described the rector's re-election as "morally and politically extremely grave" and called for immediate intervention by the justice minister.

Professor Cuzzocrea said that the political and media reaction was "a crusade against my person and against the university. But I am a victim of the press, a victim of prejudiced journalists."

He denied that Professor Berlinguer had criticised his rectorship or the state of the university. He pointed out that during the television programme just before the election, Professor Berlinguer had said that he "put his faith in the academic body to keep its guard up".

"The academic body has expressed its wishes," Professor Cuzzocrea declared. "The matter is closed."

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