By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano gave unprecedented testimony on Tuesday in a major trial that accuses the state of holding secret talks with the Sicilian Mafia in the 1990s.
Palermo prosecutors seeking to shed light on a murky period when the mob targeted the state with assassinations and bombings questioned a sitting head of state in a mafia trial for the first time in the country's history.
Among the 10 defendants are Nicola Mancino, who was interior minister at the time, and Salvatore Riina, once Italy's most powerful mob boss.
The 89-year-old Napolitano is not accused of any crime and was called as a witness who may have knowledge useful to the trial, but the hearing may tarnish the image of a president who has done much to guide Italy through political and economic turmoil in recent years.
Most Italian presidents have been little more than ribbon-cutters and authors of patriotic speeches in the past, but Napolitano has stepped in three times in as many years to break political deadlock and seat governments amid economic crisis.
Prosecutors allege senior politicians and police, hoping to stem mounting violence, held talks with mob bosses after anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife and three bodyguards were killed by a mafia bomb planted under a road in 1992.
The state's willingness to enter into talks after Falcone's murder actually encouraged further bombings, the prosecutors say, including the one that killed another anti-mafia magistrate, Paolo Borsellino, two months later.
At the time of the bombings, Napolitano was president of Italy's Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. He became Italy's president in 2006.
Prosecutors want to ask the head of state about a 2012 letter to him from his legal adviser Loris D'Ambrosio that implied Napolitano had known about the talks.
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
The media were not allowed to cover the proceedings, sparking protests from Italian journalists, and those present at the closed-door hearing were not allowed to record it.
About 40 people - including prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers - attended the hearing in a large hall in the president's 16th century Quirinale Palace in central Rome.
Riina's lawyer has said he wants to question the president, but it is not clear whether the court will allow this. Riina is serving life in prison for ordering multiple homicides, including those of Falcone and Borsellino.
Napolitano has previously provided written testimony but declined to speak before the court when prosecutors made an initial request in October of last year. He agreed to the hearing last month after a court ruled his testimony was "neither superfluous nor irrelevant".
Mancino is being tried for giving false testimony, while another nine defendants, including three senior paramilitary Carabiniere officers, face charges they sought to blackmail the state. All deny wrongdoing.
Napolitano was linked to the case when prosecutors tapped Mancino's phone and recorded four calls he made to the president. In portions of the wiretaps published by newspapers, Mancino complained about the prosecutors and appeared to be asking the president for help.
Italian media reported last year that the recordings had been destroyed, as had been ordered by the constitutional court.
But prosecutors have said they want to question the president about Mancino's conversations with D'Ambrosio, who has since died, and not about his own conversations with the former minister.
(Additional reporting by Wladimir Pantaleone in Palermo; Editing by Tom Heneghan)