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 Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 19:07 GMT
Berlusconi loses key legal battle
Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi is accused of manipulating the law
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has lost a landmark legal battle to move a sleaze trial away from Milan, where he says the judges are biased against him.

Nine judges at the Court of Cassation, Italy's Supreme Court rejected Mr Berlusconi's case after two days of complex legal argument.

Mr Berlusconi, who is accused of attempting to bribe judges, had claimed that the Milan judges were politically-motivated left-wingers.

The BBC's David Willey in Rome says the result is a "body-blow" to Mr Berlusconi.

Mr Berlusconi's own right-wing government passed the legislation giving defendants the right to try switching venues.

Delays

The passing of the law, and Mr Berlusconi's subsequent use of it, sparked accusations that he was trying to use his position as PM to wriggle out of his legal problems.

Critics say the law was tailor-made for Mr Berlusconi's own situation, suggesting that if the trial had been moved, it would have created such long delays that the trial might have collapsed altogether.

Mr Berlusconi and his friend Cesare Previti, accused of bribing judges in a separate case, originally wanted their trials moved to Brescia, 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Milan.

But La Repubblica reported on Tuesday that, in a surprise move, the request was switched to Perugia.

Legitimate suspicion

Lawyer Gaetano Pecorella argued the trial should have been held in Perugia from the outset, the newspaper's website said, as it would normally have jurisdiction over Rome where the alleged offences took place.

Mr Previti served as Italian defence minister under a previous Berlusconi government.

Under the trial-switching legislation, defendants have to convince judges that they have a legitimate suspicion that the original trial court is biased against them.

Mr Berlusconi was the first person to try using the law. The case was being seen as a landmark in Italy's legal system, and in Mr Berlusconi's court battles.

Sleaze-busters

Mr Berlusconi's battles with the Milan judges go back years. The judges have a reputation as sleaze-busters, but Mr Berlusconi says their actions against him are politically motivated, and denies the charges against him.

Mr Berlusconi's venue-changing law was passed late last year as the Milan trial was drawing to a close. A verdict is expected by this summer.

Starting again from scratch in Brescia would have created lengthy delays, and the case could have eventually fallen prey to Italy's statute of limitations, which halts court cases that have not finished within a specified period after the alleged offence was committed.

Prosecutors in the case against Mr Berlusconi claim that in the mid-1980s he paid huge bribes to a judge in Rome during a take-over battle, in an attempt to have a rival bid declared invalid.

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  The BBC's David Willey
"Mr Berlusconi has denied any wrong doing"
See also:

08 Jan 03 | Europe
26 Nov 02 | Europe
18 Nov 02 | Europe
14 Nov 00 | Europe
06 Jan 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
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