Berlusconi goes back on trial for corruption
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has been stripped of immunity, goes back on trial for corruption on Friday for allegedly bribing a British lawyer to withhold evidence. Berlusconi is also on trial for tax fraud and false accounting.
REUTERS - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi goes back on trial for corruption on Friday, while in an unrelated Mafia case, a mobster-turned-witness may try to link him to the Cosa Nostra.
The 73-year-old conservative prime minister and media mogul says biased courts are making false accusations to try to bring down the 19-month-old government—his third since 1994 -- and attack his Mediaset broadcasting empire.
Berlusconi has been stripped of immunity from prosecution, enabling a Milan trial to resume on Friday in which he is accused of bribing British lawyer David Mills with $600,000 in 1997 to withhold evidence on his business dealings.
Separately, a Turin court will hear evidence as part of an appeal on Friday of Marcello Dell’Utri, a Berlusconi associate, in a Mafia case to which the premier is not formally linked.
Berlusconi says a Mafia informant’s evidence that he and Dell’Utri were linked to a Cosa Nostra bombing campaign in 1993 is "unfounded" and threatens to sue papers that reported he was being investigated and that the mob had a stake in his business.
One court reopening the probe into the bombs in Rome, Milan and Florence has said that Berlusconi is not being investigated.
Dell’Utri, a senator in Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party, is appealing against his conviction of association with the Mafia. He has been sentenced to nine years in prison.
A Sicilian court will travel to Turin to hear Gaspare Spatuzza, a convicted hitman, give evidence in a maximum security courtroom. A protected witness, he will probably talk from behind a screen in a courtroom packed with journalists, Dell’Utri’s lawyer, Giuseppe Di Peri, told Reuters by phone.
"We are going to make some declarations given that it’s the first time we have a chance to respond to his allegations, and then he will be interrogated by the prosecutor," Di Peri said.
Spatuzza has already told magistrates, in evidence reported by the media and confirmed by court sources, that Berlusconi and Dell’Utri were mentioned to him in connection with the bombings by a Mafia boss who is now doing life for the Florence attack.
Five people died in the Florence bombing, which prosecutors say was part of a failed campaign by the Sicilian Mafia to scare the state into relaxing the harsh prison regime served by convicted mobsters.
Confident of acquittal
One Mafia boss has rubbished Spatuzza’s evidence while the prime minister said last weekend: "If there’s a person who by nature, sensitivity, mentality, background, culture and political effort is very far from the Mafia, it is me."
His government boasts that it has been arresting Mafiosi at the rate of eight per day and has so far confiscated some 10,000 Mafia properties worth 5.3 billion euros ($7.9 billion).
Berlusconi’s trial for corruption in the Mills case was suspended, thanks to a law he passed which gave him immunity from prosecution. But this was then ruled unconstitutional, meaning two pending trials against him could resume.
Mills was convicted of taking a bribe in February and got a 4-1/2 year jail sentence, pending appeal.
Berlusconi is also on trial for tax fraud and false accounting in the acquisition of media rights by Mediaset. Prosecutors say it paid an inflated price to offshore firms controlled by Berlusconi.
Berlusconi says he is confident of acquittal in both these cases but would remain premier even if convicted. He says he wants to be present in court but that his official commitments are a legitimate impediment to attending until a later date.
Berlusconi’s lawyers had originally said a cabinet meeting on Friday would prevent him from attending, but they changed that to say he had to inaugurate a stretch of new highway.
That means the hearing may just set a new date. If delayed too long, the charges elapse under the statute of limitations, as happened in another case where Berlusconi’s holding company was hit with 750 million euros in damages last month for bribing a judge, but criminal charges against Berlusconi had expired.