Rector grilled over doctor's murder

June 19, 1998

DIEGO Cuzzocrea, rector of Messina University under investigation in connection with the Mafia-style assassination of a prominent professor at the university medical school, has resigned, writes Paul Bompard.

Professor Cuzzocrea suspended himself from his duties after the Messina public prosecutor listed him as a suspect, and then announced his resignation after five hours of police interrogation. He is suspected of having staged threats and intimidation against himself so as to appear a victim of the alleged infiltration of criminal organisations in the university.

The rector was recently re-elected despite reports by the Italian anti-Mafia commission that criminal organisations were operating in the university.

He announced that he is officially under investigation and said he was suspending himself "so as not to inflict further damage on the university". His duties have been taken over by deputy Giacomo Ferra", who has also claimed to have received threats.

Apart from the murder in January of Matteo Bottari, official investigations are under way for suspected corruption in assigning lucrative contracts for supplies to the university. One of the companies involved is controlled by Professor Cuzzocrea's brothers.

There have been repeated threats against lecturers, two cases of gangland-style knee-cappings, and three bombings, which damaged university buildings.

The rector was questioned about his report that his new Rover 820 had been stolen, about a note he had subsequently received saying "Come and collect it at the cemetery", and also in connection with shots fired at his secretary's car.

Carmelo Marino, the judge heading the murder investigation, suggested that Professor Cuzzocrea, aided by relatives, may have staged the two events so as to appear a victim. "There is a connection with the Bottari investigation," the judge said. "He will have to explain why he made a report (about his car being stolen) with elements that are unconvincing." Professor Cuzzocrea's brother and brother-in-law are under investigation over the same incidents.

Investigators agree that Messina University, with its 50,000 students, thousands of secure jobs, lavish state funding and about Pounds 90 million a year in outside contracts is an appetising target for organised crime. A few families are dominant in business, local politics and the university, and there is evidence that the Sicilian city closest to mainland Italy is the terrain for alliances and conflicts between the Sicilian and Calabrian mafias.

In the wake of the rector's resignation, education minister Luigi Berlinguer said he hoped the judiciary would establish any responsibility as soon as possible. "The floodlights that have been turned on the University of Messina, in which criminal episodes of extreme gravity have taken place, will not be turned off," he said.

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