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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December 2004, 12:56 GMT
Q&A: Berlusconi trial
Italy is awaiting the verdict in the long-running corruption trial of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

In this guide Benedetto Cataldi of BBC Monitoring examines what is at stake.


Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi: Billionaire media tycoon and Italy's richest man

Q: What is Mr Berlusconi accused of?

He is accused of bribing judges in Rome in the late 1980s in order to stop the sale of the giant state food conglomerate SME to a business rival.

Q: What does he risk if found guilty?

Prosecutors are demanding an eight-year jail sentence for Mr Berlusconi.

Q: Will he go to jail if found guilty?

No, in Italy a defendant is presumed innocent until the third degree of judgement, that of the supreme court. So those found guilty by a lower court - like this one - will not go to jail unless they are eventually found guilty by the supreme court or they waive their right to appeal. Such a process could take years.

Q: Is Mr Berlusconi the only defendant?

He is now, but this was not always the case. Mr Berlusconi was originally a defendant with one of his most trusted aides, Cesare Previti, and other figures from the legal world. But the court in Milan decided it was impossible to hold an effective trial because of the prime minister's domestic and international political commitments, so they decided to try him separately.

Q: What happened to the other defendants?

Most of them were convicted last year, but not specifically over this case - the SME affair. They were found guilty of general corruption aimed at securing a favourable climate for Fininvest, Mr Berlusconi's financial empire.

Q: Why did this trial last more than four years?

There are several reasons for this. Italy's justice system is notoriously slow. Mr Berlusconi's political engagements also had a role in slowing things down. There was a controversial suspension after his majority in parliament passed a law granting him and other top officials temporary immunity.

Q: So why has the trial resumed while Mr Berlusconi is still prime minister?

Earlier this year, Italy's constitutional court threw out the immunity law on the grounds that it went against the Italian constitution - which states that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law.

Q: Is there going to be a simple innocent or guilty verdict?

Not necessarily. If mitigating circumstances are recognised, the judges could decide that the charges fall under the statute of limitations.

Q: Is the prime minister going to resign if found guilty?

He has insisted he will not and - given that under Italian law he would still be presumed innocent - he would have solid grounds not to do so. Nevertheless, if found guilty, he might find it politically expedient to subject himself to the will of the people and try to obtain a reconfirmed and stronger mandate. But he would have to persuade Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi to call early elections first.

Q: Is Mr Berlusconi the first Italian prime minister to be tried?

He is the first serving premier to go on trial, but ex-premiers have been tried in the past. Former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi was convicted of corruption in absentia and died in self-imposed exile in Tunisia. Another former prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, was tried for both complicity in murder and Mafia association, but was eventually acquitted. The only Italian prime minister who ever went to jail was Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, but that was after a wartime coup.




SEE ALSO:
Judges urged to jail Berlusconi
12 Nov 04 |  Europe
Berlusconi immunity thrown out
14 Jan 04 |  Europe
Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
13 Jan 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Italy
26 Mar 03 |  Country profiles


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