The internationally renowned anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano has declared that “journalism has been vindicated; words are vindicated – and so am I”, after a landmark judgment in Rome over threats to his life.

Judges ruled on Monday that a courtroom manoeuvre 13 years ago by a Camorra mafia boss and his lawyer constituted a threat to Saviano’s life, and that of a colleague – Rosaria Capacchione, then of the Naples daily Il Mattino – condemning the journalists to live ever since in the shadows, under bodyguard.

“My life does not greatly change,” Saviano told the Observer after the verdict. “I will still need to keep my bodyguard. And of course, the ruling does not give me back those 13 years, forced to live a hidden half-life, constantly vigilant, under guard, for all that time.

“But the ruling does show that the mafia is not invincible, that it cannot threaten journalists without sanction, and that the clans are afraid of the word, of journalism.”

After an oft-delayed 13-year trial, Rome’s criminal court found Francesco Bidognetti, chief enforcer of the Casalesi clan of the Naples region mafia, and his lawyer, Michele Santonastaso, guilty of threatening the journalists’ lives by filing a document into the “Spartacus” maxi-trial. It ended after 12 years in 2010, with 16 Camorra bosses, including Bidognetti, jailed for life.

Francesco Bidognetti.
Francesco Bidognetti, chief enforcer of the Casalesi clan of the Naples region mafia.

Bidognetti was a senior, crucial figure in a regime of murder, extortion and terror around the Casalesi base of Casal di Principe, north of Naples, and mastermind of its corrupt control over multimillion-euro businesses of waste management – much of it toxic – across the Campania region.

The document at stake was apparently a matter of legal procedure, entered into the maxi-trial shortly before the appeal hearing ended in March 2008. It requested a suspension of the entire trial, and that it be referred from Naples to another jurisdiction, because of the influence that Saviano and Capacchione were said to “wield over the judges with their writing”.

“The mafia does not make its threats directly,” explains Saviano. “They don’t issue a fatwa like Iran or Isis. Mafia semantics are complex and coded, and their menaces are made at a diagonal.”

He cites a famous foreboding made by Cosa Nostra boss Michele – Il Papa (the Pope) – Greco during the Sicilian maxi-trial of the 1980s: “Greco said to the court: ‘We wish your justice to be serene, and that this serenity will accompany you throughout your life.’ It sounds like a blessing, but it wasn’t, it was a threat [to jurors and prosecutors],” says Saviano.

“And with this manoeuvre in 2008,” he explains, “Bidognetti was saying that if he and his fellow mafiosi were convicted in that court, Rosaria and I would be complicit. And that if the mafiosi were acquitted, they would regard us – Rosaria reporting at local level, me nationally – as part of the attempt to prosecute them.

“This threat was, and still is, unique in criminal history. It labelled us as enemies of the defendants, whose work as journalists had urged the state into action against them. According to them, it was I who was a menace to the course of justice in Naples, not them, the killers awaiting judgment.”

The threat was made in an atmosphere of extreme menace: while the maxi-trial called more than 500 witnesses, and handed down more than 700 years of jail terms, five people involved in the case were murdered.

A scene from the hit TV series Gomorrah, based on Roberto Saviano’s book.
A scene from the hit TV series Gomorrah, based on Roberto Saviano’s book. Photograph: BetaFilm/Sky Atlantic

The maxi-trial had coincided with publication in 2006 of Saviano’s bestselling book Gomorrah, which revealed the Camorra’s operations and had infuriated the mafia. Saviano was put under guard, and this was augmented after the 2008 legal manoeuvre; both the clans and the journalists knew exactly what it meant. “It was coded, but clear,” says Saviano.

Capacchione, who served as a deputy for Italy’s Democratic party from 2013 to 2018, told the Ansa news agency last week: “They were real death threats against us.”

Last week’s judgment in Rome seals Saviano’s and Capacchione’s argument as legal fact, ruling the content of the referral request to be a threat and crime.

Bidognetti, who is serving several life sentences, was given 18 months for threatening the journalists, and Santonastaso, who has a previous conviction for aiding and abetting the mafia, 14 months. The judges have 90 days to publish their reasoning.

“They are token sentences,” says Saviano, “but so important in establishing what has caused me to live the life I have lived, and lost: constantly surveilled, hunted, watched, under protection, and wondering what life I would be living had these threats not been issued.”

He adds: “This has taken 13 years for us to prove this. Thirteen years of living like this. It’s hard for an Anglo-Saxon public to understand how long these trials can take.” Delays in the process are due to adjournments and debates over jurisdiction.

The threat and judgment, says Saviano, “also demonstrate how the mafia, with this court manoeuvre, regards the perimeters of journalism, and the implied instruction that a journalist ‘do a good job’ so far as they are concerned. They know this is a democracy, that there will be an article about a murder or an arrest, but that’s the limit. Then they come into court and say what they always say: everything happens, but we didn’t do it. Cosa Nostra exists, but we do not exist. And they expect us to report that.

Rosaria Capacchione in 2008 in her office at Il Mattino newspaper.
Rosaria Capacchione in 2008 in her office at Il Mattino newspaper. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

“But what does it mean to go beyond the limit? What if a journalist investigates the facts in relation to one another, and draws up a map of the mafia’s economic interests and institutional and political relations? Then, one crosses the line, exceeds the limit.”

Writing in Corriere della Sera last week, Saviano paid tribute to Capacchione – “who has dedicated a large part of her life to reporting on the Casalesi clan with courage and determination” – his lawyers and media colleagues who had brought and followed the proceedings throughout.

Saviano calculates: “Why would Bidognetti, already serving several life sentences, spend 13 years defending himself against this charge of making a threat against me? It’s because so long as I live, his threat has failed. Therefore he has to pretend he didn’t issue it. So long as I live, he loses kudos; he loses credibility in the eyes of his mates and rivals.

“Bidognetti threatened Saviano, and Saviano still lives,” reflects the writer. “In the eyes of my enemies, my most egregious fault is that I am still alive. This week is a victory for the power of the word, not mine or even Rosaria’s. But when I walked out of that courtroom on Monday, I did think – as I wrote in the final line of Gomorrah – damned bastards, I’m still alive.”