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Last Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006, 22:36 GMT 23:36 UK
Q&A: Berlusconi fraud charges
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Mr Berlusconi says is the victim of biased, left-wing judges

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is to stand trial over alleged fraud - the latest in a string of corruption-related allegations. Here are the basics of the case.

What are the charges?

Mr Berlusconi is to stand trial on charges of false accounting, embezzlement and tax fraud in relation to transactions carried out by the Berlusconi family's media company Mediaset in the 1990s.

Prosecutors suspect two offshore firms controlled by a Berlusconi family holding, Fininvest, bought television and cinema rights from a US firm.

The companies, it is alleged, then sold the rights on at inflated prices to Mediaset, also controlled by Fininvest, to avoid Italian taxes and create a slush fund.

Mr Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing.

Who else faces charges?

A total of 14 people, including Mr Berlusconi, are to stand trial in connection with the Mediaset rights purchases.

Among them is British lawyer David Mills, estranged husband of a British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell.

Mr Mills is also being investigated in relation to another case in which it is alleged he was paid a bribe by Mr Berlusconi after giving helpful court testimony.

In the Mediaset case, Mr Mills faces charges of tax fraud and embezzlement. He told Channel 4 News he faced charges of aiding and abetting tax evasion.

He is alleged to have set up offshore firms that helped Mr Berlusconi's media company avoid tax liability. Mr Mills says he has done nothing wrong.

Mediaset Chairman Fedele Confalonieri also faces charges.

Mediaset has issued a statement denying any crimes and saying its executives and directors had always acted correctly.

Has Mr Berlusconi been tried before?

Yes. Mr Berlusconi has been tried in Italian courts in at least six cases. In all of them he was either acquitted by a court of first instance or on appeal, or, crucially, when proceedings came to a halt because too much time had elapsed between the alleged offence and the trial.

Mr Berlusconi has always been able to afford top lawyers, and during his period in office as prime minister managed to make important legislative changes which, his opponents say, favoured his personal business interests.

How likely is he to go to jail?

If the former prime minister is convicted and a sentence is confirmed on appeal, Mr Berlusconi could face a possible prison term of up to six years.

A trial - and subsequent appeals - are likely to take several years.

But although previous guilty verdicts have carried jail sentences - including sentences of more than two years - Mr Berlusconi has been acquitted in all such cases.

What does Mr Berlusconi say?

Mr Berlusconi says he is the victim of a campaign by politically biased left-wing judges.

He claims that for years they have been carrying out a systematic vendetta against him and the media empire that he and his family control, accusing him of corruption, tax cheating and fraud.

His lawyer said preliminary hearings in the Mediaset case had ignored crucial witnesses for the defence.

What do opponents say?

Opponents say Mr Berlusconi used his political power while in office to shore up his business empire and to alter laws which helped him escape conviction.

Mr Berlusconi's government passed reforms shortening the statute of limitations for fraud and downgrading most forms of false accounting from criminal offences to civil ones.

Also, Mr Berlusconi's majority in parliament passed legislation that gave him and other top public post-holders immunity from prosecution while in office, although the law was later thrown out by the constitutional court.


SEE ALSO
Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
02 May 06 |  Europe
Berlusconi: Out but not down
02 May 06 |  Europe

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