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Italian mobsters received EU farm aid: court

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(ROME) - Italian mafiosi have been pocketing hundreds of thousands of euros from European farm funds for years thanks to a legal loophole, according to rulings from Italy's Court of Auditors reviewed by AFP.

Convicted gangsters and suspects under police surveillance were able to receive Common Agricultural Policy payments of up to 153,000 euros ($197,000) without triggering more in-depth controls on their criminal history.

"Until two months ago we didn't even have a list of mafiosi" to check against when making payments, said Giancarlo Nanni, director of Agea, the Italian government agency that handles European agriculture funding.

Court rulings demanding that the funds be returned to the state showed that payments of more than two million euros had been made over a period of nearly two decades, including to mafiosi who were in prison at the time.

Around1.8 millioneuros was distributedin Sicily alone, where there were dozens of rulings against "farmers" for illegally obtaining public funds.

Under Italian law, it is illegal for convicted people to receive the funds.

But when the amount is below 153,000 euros anyone can receive the subsidies without an anti-mafia certificate, a special document released by the authorities to show the recipient has not been convicted of mafia crimes.

One beneficiary was Giuseppe Caruso from Sicily who was convicted for mafia crimes in 1994 but still managed to receive two separate tranches of agricultural financing in 2005 and 2006 for a total of 37,597 euros.

Another was Antonio Piromalli, a member of the 'Ndrangheta mafia in the Calabria region of southern Italy.

He obtained 25,720 euros for his olive trees in 2005, 2008 and 2009.

The recipients also included some world-renowned mafia figures.

One of them was Gaetano Riina, brother of the mafia's imprisoned "Boss of Bosses" Salvatore Riina, who received more than 42,000 euros in 1997.

Riina was arrested last year for trying to rebuild his brother's empire.

Contacted by AFP, the European Commission's representative office in Italy said it was up to European Union member states to handle payments.

"Member states are also obliged to prevent and deal with irregularities and to recover amounts unduly paid," it said in a statement.

Fabio Granata, a lawmaker and member of the parliament's anti-mafia committee, said he was shocked.

"I couldn't believe my eyes!" said the Sicily native, adding: "The problem is the political will to exercise controls."

Granata, who supports Sicily's new centre-left regional government elected last month, said he wanted to see "radical change" in the region.

"We are working on a black list of people who have been convicted, not only for mafia crimes, but also for bribery and corruption," he said.

But he cautioned that drawing up the list could take "several months".

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