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Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 13:58 GMT 14:58 UK
Berlusconi on the warpath
Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi: Turning the tables on magistrates?
By David Willey in Rome

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has come out fighting after scoring a major court victory in a corruption case.

A week after the country's highest criminal court found in his favour in a corruption case which had been going on for years, Mr Berlusconi appears to be embarking on an attempt to see off the investigating magistrates.

First he launched a media onslaught accusing the magistrates of being politically motivated against him.

Now members of his party, Forza Italia, are considering putting the magistrates themselves under investigation.

A series of public intimidations through which a group of prosecutors tried to frame the person chosen by Italians to govern

Silvio Berlusconi on cases against him
The corruption case which Mr Berlusconi won centred on events 10 years ago.

While Mr Berlusconi was busy building his media and real estate business empire - and had not yet entered national politics - officials from some of his companies bribed tax inspectors to the tune of about $200,000 for turning a blind eye to certain fiscal irregularities.

Milan prosecutors charged Mr Berlusconi himself in 1994.

The case dragged on for years through the courts - as is common in Italy where both prosecutors and defendants appeal verdicts of lower courts as a matter of course - until Mr Berlusconi was finally acquitted last week on the grounds that he, as head of the companies concerned, had committed no crime.


In a letter to the leading daily, Corriere Della Sera, Mr Berlusconi promptly launched a new attack against the prosecutors who, he says, in this and other pending cases of corruption and false acccounting against him, have been carrying out a vendetta.

He claimed he was also the victim of the media. "Give me back my honour!" he pleaded.

On previous occasions Mr Berlusconi has protested that he was only doing what thousands of his fellow countrymen regularly do - creative accounting.

Antonio di Pietro:
Antonio di Pietro: Demolisher of political parties
Mr Berlusconi was first notified that he was under investigation while he was hosting a UN crime conference in Naples in 1994 during his first short-lived premiership. His government collapsed shortly afterwards.

"That act changed Italian history," Mr Berlusconi wrote. "It was an apparently normal act, but it was the last of a series of public intimidations through which a group of prosecutors tried to frame the person chosen by Italians to govern."

Members of Mr Berlusconi's governing Forza Italia party are now proposing a parliamentary enquiry into alleged abuse of justice by prosecutors, who from 1992 onwards challenged some of the most powerful names in Italian business and politics in the courts.

The chances of his complete acquittal in all pending cases remain good, as a result of changes in the law which he has just pushed through parliament in Rome

The "tangentopoli" or "bribesville" crusade spearheaded by former prosecutor, now independent politician, Antonio di Pietro, caused a mini-revolution in Italian political life, demolishing the two political parties which had dominated Italian politics since the end of the Second World War, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists.

Among other corruption cases still pending against Mr Berlusconi are one in which he is charged with bribing judges in connection with the purchase of a supermarket chain in 1985.

But the chances of his complete acquittal in all these cases remain good, as a result of changes in the law relating to cross-border prosecutions and to prosections for false accounting which he has just pushed through parliament in Rome.

I feel that targeting judges has become a sort of national sport, which clearly amuses those who practice

Judges' leader Giuseppe Gennaro
These new laws, which are retroactive, mean that Italian courts can now disregard evidence provided by foreign magistrates on the grounds that the labyrinthine verification procedures demanded by Italian legislation have not been followed to the letter.

Much of the evidence in one case pending against Mr Berlusconi comes from Switzerland. It now risks being rejected in the Italian courts. False book-keeping has been decriminalised in the sense that it is now regarded as an administrative offence punishable by a fine instead of a criminal act punishable by imprisonment.

'Toothless' watchdogs

When he was elected Prime Minister for the second time earlier this year, Mr Berlusconi promised he would resolve the conflict of interest issue between his public and private roles - in particular his near monopoly over commercial TV in Italy - within his first hundred days of office.

He has now presented a plan for a watchdog committee of three wise men appointed by his own majority party to report on possible violations. The clear message from Rome is: these watchdogs have no teeth.

Giuseppe Gennaro, president of Italy's National Association of Judges, commenting on Mr Berlusconi's latest attacks on the judiciary, said: "I feel that targeting judges has become a sort of national sport, which clearly amuses those who practice it.

"Personally I find this sport not very amusing, and of questionable taste."

See also:

15 May 01 | Europe
Berlusconi's big plans
20 Jun 01 | Europe
Berlusconi wins senate confidence
15 Aug 01 | Business
Berlusconi deadline nears
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