Italian justice minister linked to mafia inquiry

· Prodi forced to name man holding balance of power
· Clemente Mastella was at mob associate's wedding

Italy's new leader, Romano Prodi, named as his justice minister yesterday a controversial politician linked to a confessed associate of the mafia. Clemente Mastella, a former Christian Democrat from near Naples, is also known for criticising judges.

The tiny party he leads holds the balance of power in the new parliament and if Mr Prodi had failed to give him a senior job in cabinet the future of his centre-left government would have been in danger.

Mr Mastella was questioned this year at Italy's National Anti-mafia Directorate in Rome about his relations with Francesco Campanella, who confessed to helping the mafia's then-fugitive boss, Bernardo Provenzano. In July 2000 Mr Mastella was a witness at Mr Campanella's wedding. Mr Mastella was not a suspect and has not been accused of any offence.

Mr Campanella, who sat on the town council of Villabate, a mob-ridden town outside Palermo, has confessed to providing vital assistance to the mafia's fugitive "boss of bosses", Provenzano, who was seized last month after 42 years on the run. In 2001 he used his official position to supply Cosa Nostra's top "godfather" with an identity card so he could travel abroad for medical treatment.

Another witness at Mr Campanella's wedding was Salvatore Cuffaro, the governor of Sicily and a former political associate of Mr Mastella, who is on trial for aiding the mafia. He denies wrongdoing.

Mr Campanella's role in helping Provenzano, who travelled to France for a prostate operation, was brought to light by an informer. The town councillor was put under investigation and, faced with the threat of jail, himself began collaborating with the authorities.

At a heavily guarded courtroom, his features hidden by a balaclava, Mr Campanella has since testified extensively about his contacts with the mafia and the mafia's involvement with politicians.

Mr Mastella is one of the most outspoken and agile figures on the Italian political scene. Last year he criticised an inquiry into alleged corruption on the left and once said that prosecutors looking into claims of links between local government and organised crime in Naples had created a "climate of terror".

In the past 12 years the 59-year-old Mr Mastella has helped found no less than four parties. A minister in Silvio Berlusconi's first government in 1994, he abandoned the right in 1998 to set up a party of his own and then joined up with the left.

Last year, his latest party, the Union of Democrats for Europe, threatened to leave Mr Prodi's alliance because it felt it was being sidelined. It won just 1.4% of the vote at last month's general election. But since its support is concentrated around Naples it can deliver more seats than parties with bigger, but more evenly distributed, electorates. Crucially, Mr Mastella's supporters occupy three of the 315 elected seats in the senate, where the centre-left has a majority of only one.

Mr Prodi's 26-strong cabinet leans noticeably to the left and includes Italy's first ex-communist foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema. The country's shaky finances have been entrusted to an independent minister, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, a former executive board member of the European Central Bank.

Contributor

John Hooper in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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