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Italian term pentito (Italian pronunciation: [penˈtiːto]; "repentant"; plural: pentiti) is used colloquially to designate people in Italy who were formerly part of criminal or terrorist organizations and who, following their arrests, decided to "repent" and collaborate with the judiciary to help further investigations. The judicial category of pentiti was originally created in legislation passed by the Italian government in the 1970s to combat violence and terrorism during the so-called Years of Lead. The correct technical name used for them is "collaborators of justice" (Italian: collaboratori di giustizia). In the wake of the Maxi Trial in Palermo in 1986–87, and after the testimony of Tommaso Buscetta, the term came into widespread use in Italy for all former members of the Sicilian Mafia who had abandoned their organization and started helping investigators.
In exchange for the information they deliver, pentiti receive shorter sentences for their crimes, in some cases even freedom. In the Italian judicial system, pentiti can obtain personal protection, a new name, and some money to start a new life in another place, possibly abroad.
This practice is common in other countries as well. In the United States, criminals testifying against their former associates can enter the Witness Protection Program, and be given new identities with supporting paperwork. The Italian Mafia bosses Buscetta and Francesco Marino Mannoia were allowed to live in the U.S. under new identities in the Witness Protection Program when Italy did not yet have such a program.
Among the most famous Mafia pentiti is Tommaso Buscetta, the first important pentito. He was helpful to judge Giovanni Falcone in describing the Sicilian Mafia Commission or Cupola, the leadership of the Sicilian Mafia in the 1980s, and identifying the main operational channels that the Mafia used for its business.
In Italy, important successes were achieved with the cooperation of pentiti in the fight against terrorism (especially against the Red Brigades), by Carabinieri general Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa (who was later killed by the Mafia).
In the period until the 1990s, there were very few, albeit significant, pentiti such as Tommaso Buscetta, Salvatore Contorno, Antonino Calderone, etc. However, this changed significantly during the early 1990s. From 1992, over a thousand mafiosi have agreed to collaborate with Italian justice.
In some cases, pentiti have invented stories to obtain reductions in jail time. A famous case regarded the popular TV anchorman Enzo Tortora, who was falsely accused of cocaine trafficking and Camorra membership by a pentito named Giovanni Melluso. Tortora was detained for years before being cleared; he developed cancer and died soon after the case was finally solved, some say because of the emotional stress of his imprisonment.
In some southern Italian communities, the Mafia is a significant presence, and in these areas becoming a pentito is tantamount to a death sentence. Indeed, the Mafia family of Totò Riina based in the town of Corleone habitually extended this sentence to cover relatives of the pentito. For example, all of Tommaso Buscetta's family was killed in a long series of murders spanning many years.
Since the pentito himself is physically protected by the police, retribution on his family is common; therefore, when there are rumours of a mafioso collaborating with the police, the family usually condemns that person immediately to avoid retaliation. For example, when Vincenzo Sinagra began collaborating with the authorities his entire family disowned him.
It is often pointed out that the correct term should be collaboratori di giustizia, or "those who collaborate with justice". The word pentito implies a moral judgement that is considered inappropriate for the courts of justice to make.
In Italy, pentiti have come under criticism because of the favours they receive and because:
Criticism comes most often from politicians[who?], especially when they or an associate of theirs is under investigation for connections to the Mafia. It is therefore interpreted by some as an attempt to discredit one's own accusers, instead of a genuine preoccupation of the common citizen's civil rights.
Laws have been passed that bar pentiti from obtaining substantial benefits unless their revelations are later deemed new material, and lead to concrete results. There have been proposals to accept revelations only for six months, after which their revelations could not be used in court.
This has had the effect of reducing the appeal of becoming a pentito, since a single mafia associate does not know whether his knowledge will be useful to the prosecutors at the time of defection. Defection from mafia in Italy have subsequently sharply reduced from the height reached in the early nineties, and results in the fight against mafia have reduced accordingly.
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