ROME (Reuters) - Italian police have arrested Claudio Scajola, industry minister in the last government of ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, on suspicion of helping a former party colleague convicted of association with the mafia to flee justice, authorities said on Thursday.
The case adds one more scandal for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party to deal with following his own conviction for tax evasion But the political fallout, including any impact on the party's vote in the upcoming European election, remains unclear. Scajola was forced to resign in 2010 over allegations of impropriety in connection with the purchase of a luxury flat near the Colosseum in Rome, but was cleared of wrongdoing by a court earlier this year.
The DIA anti-mafia police in the southern city of Reggio Calabria said Scajola had been arrested in Rome over his links with Amedeo Matacena, a Calabrian businessman and former lawmaker from centre-right Forza Italia.
No comment was immediately available from Scajola's lawyer. Scajola himself made no remarks to reporters as he was filmed leaving a police station in the capital on Thursday to be taken into custody.
ON THE RUN
Matacena, convicted over links to 'Ndrangheta, the powerful Calabrian mafia, is currently a fugitive from justice in Dubai, chief prosecutor Federico Cafiero de Raho said.
His passport was withdrawn in October but prosecutors believe suspects in the case had been trying to help him avoid extradition by escaping to Lebanon, where Scajola had close relations with senior politicians.
"The aspect which strikes everyone is how a person who held such important positions of responsibility in our state could help another person who was convicted of mafia association and who had fled abroad to escape his punishment," Cafiero de Raho told a news conference.
The DIA statement said police were now searching properties across Italy and had seized assets worth around 50 million euros (40 million pounds). It did not give any further details.
Scajola had been expected to be a candidate for Forza Italia in the European parliamentary elections later this month but in the end was not selected, although Berlusconi denied that the party was aware of the case surrounding Matacena.
"It is a very, very, very, very painful thing," he told Radio Capital in an interview on Thursday. He said the decision not to present Scajola as a candidate was made because of fears of a press campaign against him over the house-buying affair.
"We'd seen from polling that putting him up as a candidate would have lowered our overall vote," he said.
Last month Marcello Dell'Utri, another of Berlusconi's inner circle, was arrested in Lebanon. He had been declared a fugitive from justice after leaving Italy before a court was due to deliver a final verdict on charges of mafia collusion.
That ruling is expected on Friday.
In a separate case on Thursday, police arrested seven individuals including an official in charge of managing property holdings of the Lombardy region, on charges of corruption relating to awarding contracts for the Expo 2015 exhibition in Milan.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)