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Tuesday, 26 November, 2002, 17:38 GMT
Mafia trial judges quiz Berlusconi
Berlusconi at Nato summit
Berlusconi faced tough questioning
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appeared before judges on Tuesday in the trial of a close associate accused of Mafia money-laundering - but refused to answer any questions.

The hearing was held behind closed doors for "security reasons", to the anger of some Italian news organisations.

Mr Berlusconi used his right under Italian law to refuse to comment, judicial sources said.


This hearing is a waste of time

Niccolo Ghedini
Berlusconi lawyer
Judges from Sicily had travelled to Rome for the hearing, in the trial of businessman Marcello Dell'Utri.

Mr Dell'Utri, a senator in Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, is accused of using an advertising business - part of Berlusconi's Fininvest business empire - to recycle Mafia money.

The hearing was convened in the Palazzo Chigi - the prime minister's office in Rome - despite protestations from Mr Berlusconi's lawyers that he would decline to comment.

"It was a very brief affair," said Niccolo Ghedini, a member of his legal team and Forza Italia member of parliament, who accompanied Mr Berlusconi to the hearing.

"On the request of his lawyers, Berlusconi exercised his right not to answer."

Mr Ghedini had earlier described the hearing as "a waste of time".

Battle of wills

Mr Berlusconi had avoided at least two earlier attempts to appear before the judges, in an apparent battle of wills which has stretched over several months.

He had previously said it was easier to imagine Mr Dell'Utri as a Martian than as a Mafia member.

Full details of the hearing were not made public, but Mr Berlusconi had been expected to face particular probing on the setting up of more than 20 Fininvest holding companies in the 1970s.

Judges suspect that money used to create the firms might have come from Mafia sources via Mr Dell'Utri, although Fininvest insists it can account for all the cash.


Journalists' task is to tell the facts, but maybe this is what the Palermo tribunal considers dangerous

Paolo Serventi Longhi
Press Federation
Mr Berlusconi was expected to face a separate line of questioning about a former stable manager, Vittorio Mangano, who was recommended to him by Mr Dell'Utri, but was later convicted of murder, drug trafficking, extortion and Mafia membership.

The secretary general of the Italian Press Federation, Paolo Serventi Longhi, has attacked the decision to keep journalists out of the hearing.

The decision, he said, was "unacceptable to those who care about the right of citizens to be informed".

"The Palermo tribunal must make clear whether it believes trials are still public," he said.

The unspecified security concerns cited by the judges were dismissed by Mr Longhi.

"Journalists do not jeopardise any safety - their task is to tell the facts, but maybe this is what the Palermo tribunal considers dangerous," he said.

Giulio Andreotti
Former PM Andreotti was found guilty of Mafia ties
Most of the evidence against Mr Dell'Utri comes from Mafia informants.

Fininvest has previously issued a statement saying any attempts to link it with the Mafia were "absurd".

The group "had never paid anything to illegal organisations and had never received requests to do so," the statement said.

The hearing comes a week after former prime minister Giulio Andreotti was found guilty of ordering a 1979 Mafia murder.

The verdict was attacked by Mr Berlusconi and large sections of the Italian media and political world.

See also:

18 Nov 02 | Europe
18 Nov 02 | Media reports
23 Oct 99 | Europe
14 Nov 00 | Europe
06 Jan 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
20 Oct 02 | Country profiles
Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.


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