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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 June, 2003, 10:27 GMT 11:27 UK
Berlusconi in new court drama
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in court
Mr Berlusconi is expected to gain immunity this week
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has made a dramatic court appearance to defend himself against corruption charges.

Mr Berlusconi, accused of bribing judges over a business deal in the 1980s, told the packed Milan court that the chief prosecution witness was a compulsive liar.

He promised to return to the court next week - but the trial is expected to have collapsed by then, as the Italian parliament is due on Wednesday to approve a bill granting the prime minister immunity.

Mr Berlusconi, who accuses the Milan courts of persecuting him, had missed numerous previous hearings, citing government commitments.

This time he gave a lengthy statement but said he was running too late to undergo questioning, and would only be cross-examined in his prime-ministerial office.

There is no body here, there is no murder weapon, there is no motive - how can such a case be pursued?
Silvio Berlusconi

He likened the proceedings against him to a murder trial with missing key components.

"There is no body here, there is no murder weapon, there is no motive," he said.

"I don't know how this trial came about, or what proof or accusations there are.

'Fantasy'

"All there is is a fantasy cooked up by the person who invented this theory (of corruption). And I'm having... tonnes of mud slung at me."

He labelled prosecution witness Stefania Ariosto as a "mythomaniac" who should be charged with slander.

Mr Berlusconi left the court to a mixture of applause, catcalls and shouts of "buffoon".

Mr Berlusconi's appearance on Tuesday was only his second since the three-year trial started.

The allegations centre on the sale of the SME state food company in 1985, before Mr Berlusconi had entered politics.

Mr Berlusconi has previously accused European Commission President Romano Prodi of wrongdoing over the affair - by trying to sell the firm off cheaply to a rival tycoon. Mr Prodi has denied the allegation.

Under pressure

The trial is an unwelcome distraction for Mr Berlusconi, who is about to lead Italy into its six-month spell as holder of the European Union's rotating presidency.

Mr Berlusconi is also facing domestic political pressures, with warnings from the far-right Northern League that it will pull out of the coalition government within weeks if its demands on devolution and immigration are not met.

The immunity bill would cover Italy's five most senior state officials.

It has already been passed in the upper house of parliament, the Senate, and is expected to have an easy ride through the lower house, where Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party has a comfortable majority.

It would freeze any proceedings against Mr Berlusconi until he left office.

Correspondents say that the current trial would be unlikely to resume once halted.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Brian Barron
"Mr Berlusconi can't totally insulate himself from his past"



SEE ALSO:
Italian senate backs PM immunity
04 Jun 03  |  Europe
Berlusconi to be tried alone
16 May 03  |  Europe
Berlusconi set to ride out storm
30 Apr 03  |  Europe
Italian PM attacks judiciary
30 Jan 03  |  Europe


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