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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 16:19 GMT
Q&A: Berlusconi's battle with the courts

Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has been reprimanded by the United Nations for meddling with the judiciary. News Online looks at Mr Berlusconi's history in the courtroom and asks why the judges are up in arms.

What are the current allegations against Mr Berlusconi?

There are four cases pending against Mr Berlusconi involving various branches of his vast business empire. The charges cover false accounting, tax fraud and bribing judges.

  • SME:
    The prosecution accuses Mr Berlusconi and his friend and political ally Cesare Previti of bribing judges in a 1986 court case. The court's ruling caused a Berlusconi rival's bid to purchase state-owned food giant, SME, to fall through.

  • AC Milan:
    Mr Berlusconi is accused of false accounting over alleged irregularities in the purchase of a player for AC Milan - the football club he owns.

  • Fininvest:
    This is another charge of false accounting in which Mr Berlusconi is alleged to have doctored the accounts of offshore companies that form part of his massive Fininvest holding company. Prosecutors believe this may be linked to bribes paid to the former Socialist Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi.

  • Telecinco:
    Mr Berlusconi is being pursued by the crusading Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, who is most famous for leading the attempts to extradite the former Chilean leader, General Augusto Pinochet. Through his stake in the private Spanish TV company, Telecinco, he is accused of tax fraud and breaching anti-trust laws in Spain. Mr Berlusconi's claims to political immunity have have thwarted the judge's attempts to bring him to trial.

Has Mr Berlusconi ever been convicted?

He has been found guilty on several charges of illegal party financing, corruption, bribery and false accounting - but has always appealed, and avoided jail.

In some cases, he has been acquitted in the appeal courts, while in others the process has run out of time and been "extinguished" under the statute of limitations.

Why is he accused of interfering with the judiciary?

Judges say Mr Berlusconi is trying to undermine their independence.

In particular they have protested against plans to remove their police escorts, which are considered necessary for their protection following the assassination of a number of judges. Mr Berlusconi has also accused the judiciary of being part of a leftist conspiracy against him.

In addition there are specific complaints that the Justice Minister, Roberto Castelli, has tried to pull a judge off the SME case. If a new judge had to be appointed then the case would probably run out of time, letting Mr Berlusconi go free.

Magistrates are also angered by a government announcement that it will sue Milan's most senior judge, Francesco Saverio Borelli, for his scathing attack on alleged government interference.

There are also allegations that Mr Berlusconi has introduced legislation which would help him see off some of the charges against him.

For example, proposals to decriminalise false accounting would help him in the AC Milan and Fininvest cases. And new legislation which makes it difficult to use evidence from abroad in Italian courts might also let him off the hook on the SME allegations.

There has also been speculation that the Italian Government's initial opposition to the introduction of an EU-wide arrest warrant was linked to the accusations against Mr Berlusconi in Spain.

Has this affected Mr Berlusconi's popularity?

Italians are accustomed to accusations of dishonesty in the corridors of power and many are bored by Mr Berlusconi's long-running courtroom drama.

Others may be persuaded by his argument that magistrates are pursuing him for political reasons.

As a result, his standing at home has not been greatly affected.

Abroad there are concerns about Mr Berlusconi's credentials and these have been compounded by his series of blunders on the international scene.

But, having burned their fingers when they intervened over the inclusion of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party in the Austrian Government, European governments are unwilling to be openly critical of Mr Berlusconi.

See also:

12 Jan 02 | Europe
Berlusconi defends his EU record
08 Jan 02 | Europe
Berlusconi says Italy backs EU
23 Oct 01 | Europe
Berlusconi on the warpath
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