Rome, May 6 - Italians had for years grown used to headlines linking seven-time premier Giulio Andreotti - who has died aged 94 - to murky events in Sicily. Hardly surprisingly, they couldn't quite bring themselves to believe they'd been ruled for most of the postwar years by a criminal mastermind who'd stuck at nothing, not even murder and a deal with the Mob, to cling to power. Not even when Mafia bosses broke their vows of silence and said so, claiming the unholy alliance was sealed by a kiss with Toto' "the Beast" Riina. Not even when his man in Sicily, Salvo Lima, was gunned down in broad daylight in alleged revenge for welching on the deal. And not even when, sensationally, Andreotti was given a 24-year jail term in 2002 for conspiracy to murder a bothersome scandalmonger. Not surprisingly, the country didn't need to breath a collective sigh of relief when the state's highest appeals court in October 2003 overturned the murder verdict issued just a year previously. Or when it followed suit on the Mafia charges a year later - albeit with the embarrassing coda that Mob dealings up to 1980 had not been proven. Most Italians had really just kept on disbelieving anyway, in a philosophical state of denial, and the bluff old statesman (or convicted murderer) had kept on happily swapping seats on TV chat shows with a pew in Palermo trials for helping the Mafia. Among the allegations in those trials - Andreotti got off first time round in 1999, a verdict upheld in May 2003 - was hearsay evidence from top turncoat Antonino Giuffre' in early 2003 that "the old fox" argued with Mafia chieftain Stefano Bontade about "who was really running Sicily." But the outcome of the trials, like the murder case, was never the issue. Most Italians would go on admiring the wry old gentleman on the small screen, some might admit he could have been wiser in his choice of political allies down south, and a minority would be unswerving in their conviction that he was the devil incarnate. Some courts sometimes attempted to pin down this moving target. The 2002 murder conviction in Perugia was based on the grounds that Italy's consummate politician was also a ruthless criminal. According to court documents released in February 2003, he masterminded the Mafia slaying to protect his reputation. The appeals court in Perugia found Andreotti guilty of ordering the murder of muck-raking journalist Mino Pecorelli. The then 84-year-old life senator and five co-defendants had been acquitted of involvement in the killing by a lower court in September 1999 at the end of a three-and-a-half-year trial. The 2002 sentence said Andreotti had a "strong interest in ensuring that Pecorelli didn't publish certain shocking news stories, even in a toned-down version." The murder "cannot but have been requested" by Andreotti, it said, although it stressed that no witnesses or Mafia turncoats had provided testimony saying the order was a "direct" one. "Andreotti is an extremely cautious person, who has always tried to avoid direct exposure, to the extent that in cases much less serious than murder, he always made use of intermediaries to let his wishes be known," the sentence said. Right-wing investigative reporter Carmine (Mino) Pecorelli, 51, was shot in the head and back four times as he left his Rome office on March 20, 1979. He was the editor of a weekly called Osservatore Politico (OP) and, thanks in part to close contacts with the Italian secret services, frequently exposed sleaze and graft cases in Italian politics. He had been planning to publish damaging revelations about Andreotti when he was killed. The 'scoop' allegedly concerned shady goings-on connected to the 1978 kidnapping of Christian Democrat (DC) leader Aldo Moro, the collapse of the Sir oil company, and the fall from grace of the Mafia-linked financier Andreotti once hailed as "the saviour of the lira", Michele Sindona. On the night of his death, he had just been forced to withdraw an edition of OP which showed Andreotti on the cover and alleged that the statesman had received kickbacks from a massive tax milking scandal in the 1970s. At the end of the first trial into the murder case, Andreotti, a former giant of Italy's now defunct DC party, was acquitted of all charges of involvement, along with Mafia boss Gaetano Badalamenti, who is serving a 20-year sentence in the US for drugs offences. The Perugia court overturned these verdicts, finding Andreotti and Badalamenti guilty of commissioning the murder. But it upheld the not-guilty verdicts against the alleged killers, a Mafia hitman and a member of Rome's notorious Magliana Gang; the alleged intermediary, long-time Andreotti associate and former minister Claudio Vitalone; and another Mafia boss, Giuseppe (Pippo) Calo'. The papers stressed that "the Mafia had no interest in killing Pecorelli." "If Stefano Bontade (the old-guard Mafia chieftain) and Badalamenti decided to eliminate the journalist... they did so on an explicit request that can be traced back to the defendant Andreotti," the sentence said. The Perugia appeals court convicted Andreotti and Badalamenti on the testimony of the first big Cosa Nostra informant, the late Tommaso Buscetta, who only cited Andreotti after the mob slayings of crusading magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992. During Andreotti's first, 1996-1999 trial, Buscetta testified that Badalamenti told him Pecorelli had been killed by the Mafia as a favour to Andreotti. Buscetta also claimed Andreotti met the Mafia boss and told him "we need men like you at every street corner in Italy." Andreotti, who was universally praised for the quiet dignity with which he followed due process and resisted the temptation to rail against prosecutors, claimed the allegations were part of a plot, perhaps inspired by foreign secret services, to take revenge on the old political system and against those who were in fact most energetic in fighting the Mafia. The conviction spurred outrage on the Right and unease even among Andreotti's old sparring partners on the Left. The most horrified reactions came from within the ranks of the governing centre-right coalition led by Premier Silvio Berlusconi, especially among centrist politicians who are the DC's heirs. Berlusconi described Andreotti as the victim of a "judicial system gone crazy" and said the judiciary needed to be taken apart and "reconstructed." The sentence also spurred controversy because the alleged killers and suspected intermediary Vitalone saw their acquittals upheld, sparking press headlines such as "A Crime Without Killers," "Absurd Verdict" and "Crazy Justice." Pecorelli's sister, Rosita, expressed indignation over the reactions to the verdict. "A bit of surprise was only to be expected after the sentence, but not that everyone would start closing ranks around the guy," she said. The late 2002 conviction did not, however, have the expected impact on Andreotti's second appeals trial in Palermo for complicity with the Mafia, where he faced a ten-year sentence if the court overturned his previous acquittal. Instead, in May 2003, the acquittal was upheld. At that trial, he frankly admitted links to several controversial Sicilian DC players including his reputed lieutenant Lima, gunned down in 1992, but consistently denied informants' allegations that he knew the Salvo cousins, a pair of Mafia-linked power brokers, or, in the most outrageous claim of all, that he exchanged a ritual kiss of honour with Boss of Bosses Riina. There was a sting in the tail, however. In July, in explaining its verdict, the judges said Andreotti was "friendly" with the Mafia at least until 1980 but could no longer be prosecuted because of the intervening lapse of time. This, in turn, appeared to cut no ice with the Supreme Court which in October 2003 demolished the Pecorelli prosecution case, stressing it was based on hearsay and speculation, and saying nothing could tie Andreotti to Pecorelli through the mysterious 'Moro papers'. But the top court went the other way a year later, upholding the acquittal but also the 1980 watershed. But in any case, there was never any chance that Andreotti would find himself behind bars because of his age and because, as a life Senator, he had immunity from arrest. If anything, the old stager seemed to enjoy his chance to return to the spotlight and deliver a few more dead-pan gags. Asked what he thought about the unusually long sentence for the Pecorelli murder, he said he it was a "good omen" for long life. And after his slate was wiped (virtually) clean on October 30, 2003, the elder statesman quipped: "Hats off to the court. I don't know much about the law. My 1941 degree's a bit musty. But I have one word for the first appeals sentence: horrendous."