Licio Gelli, the former head of an outlawed secret masonic lodge linked to some of Italy’s biggest and darkest scandals of the 20th century, has died aged 96, his family said. He was no stranger to Swiss banks or prisons.
Gelli was the grandmaster of the shadowy Propaganda 2 (P2) group, which was founded in 1969 and used to be Italy’s most powerful secret organisation, boasting prominent politicians, business leaders and military officers as members.
Exposed in 1981, P2 was accused of conspiring with rightwing extremists and the mafia to destabilise governments through bombings and violence, often blamed on extreme leftists.
Gelli was sentenced to 12 years in jail for fraud in connection with the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, whose boss Roberto Calvi – known as “God’s banker” for his ties to the Vatican – was found hanged under a bridge in London in 1982.
Before the bank went under, Gelli deposited CHF120 million ($122 million) in Swiss accounts. In 1982, he was arrested in Geneva after trying to withdraw a considerable sum using a fake Argentinian passport.
In 1983, the Swiss authorities said they were prepared to hand Gelli over to Italy, but before his extradition he managed to escape from Geneva's Champ-Dollon prison with the help of a prison guard and fled to South America. Four years later he returned to Geneva and turned himself in.
He was sentenced to two months in prison in Switzerland. At the same time an Italian court sentenced him to eight years for financing rightwing terrorist activity in Tuscany in the 1970s.
The Swiss eventually agreed to extradite him, with his transfer to Italy in February 1988 requiring considerable security, including 100 snipers, decoy cars, a train, road blocks and two armoured cars.
Gelli was also found guilty of obstructing justice during investigations into one of the darkest episodes in Italy’s recent past: the 1980 explosion of a bomb at the Bologna train station which killed 85 people.
A Rome judge in 1995 linked Gelli with a 1970 plot for a military coup in Italy, but the case was shelved because a statute of limitations had kicked in, meaning the crime could no longer be prosecuted.
The P2 was also accused of using its considerable influence to stymie efforts to save former prime minister Aldo Moro, who was murdered by the Red Brigades leftist guerrilla group in 1978 after a 55-day kidnapping. The accusations were never proved.
At a news conference in 1999, Gelli said: “I am a fascist and will die a fascist.”
swissinfo.ch and agencies