Page last updated at 17:29 GMT, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Q&A: Berlusconi v the courts

Cases against Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are resuming after a law that granted him immunity from prosecution while in office was ruled unconstitutional.

What are the cases?

Silvio Berlusconi in the election run-up in 2008
Mr Berlusconi introduced the immunity law soon after taking office in 2008

The first, scheduled to resume on 15 January, is a corruption trial involving British tax lawyer David Mills, the estranged husband of UK government minister Tessa Jowell.

Mills has been found guilty of accepting a bribe of $600,000 from Mr Berlusconi in 1997 in exchange for giving false testimony in court.

Mills was sentenced in February to four-and-a-half years in jail but has appealed and is unlikely to serve any prison sentence because the statute of limitations means the case will soon expire.

Mr Berlusconi was not tried because of the immunity law, but now that has been overturned the case against him can resume.

In a second case, scheduled for 18 January, Mr Berlusconi is accused of tax fraud and false accounting over the purchase of TV rights by his Mediaset group.

Prosecutors say Mediaset bought the rights at an inflated price from two offshore companies controlled by Mr Berlusconi.

Could Mr Berlusconi face convictions or be forced to resign?

In the Mills trial, the corruption charges against Mr Berlusconi are due to expire in 2010 or 2011 under Italy's statute of limitations, making it unlikely that he will go to jail.

The Mediaset case could resume where it left off and is not due to expire for several years. However, here too it is unlikely that the case and any appeals could run their full course before time runs out.

Mr Berlusconi has long continued his political career in spite of the numerous legal proceedings against him, even appearing in court whilst serving as prime minister. He has always denied the charges against him and never showed any sign of resigning.

Under the Italian criminal system, defendants are not required to appear in court and do not face punishment until a definitive sentence is delivered.

What is the background to the Mills case?

Mills was one of Mr Berlusconi's consultants on offshore tax havens.

Mr Mills arriving at his former home in 2006
Mr Mills denies taking a bribe from Mr Berlusconi

The prosecution says Mr Berlusconi paid Mills for not revealing details of offshore companies during two previous trials in 1997 and 1998, in which the lawyer gave evidence as an expert witness.

Mills initially admitted receiving money from Mr Berlusconi "in recognition" of the evidence he gave, but later recanted, saying the money was paid to him by an Italian shipping magnate, Diego Attanasio.

However, Mr Attanasio says he was in prison at the time, and did not make the payment.

What was the immunity law?

After being swept into power for a third time in April 2008, Mr Berlusconi himself drew up the controversial law granting legal immunity to the four most senior office-holders in Italy, which includes the post of prime minister.

The bill was passed by both houses of parliament, with supporters arguing that the amendment was needed to allow the top state officials to focus on doing their jobs - without legal distraction.

It was the second immunity law passed by a Berlusconi-led government - the first one was thrown out by the constitutional court in 2004.

Why was it rejected?

The constitutional court's ruling said the legislation violated the principle that all are equal before the law, and that any such measure requires a constitutional law or amendment.

How has Mr Berlusconi responded?

The prime minister and his allies are seeking new ways of blocking what they say are politically motivated cases by left-wing prosecutors and judges.

The measures being considered include a new law to drastically cut the duration of Italy's slow trials; forcing court cases to be rescheduled around Mr Berlusconi's official commitments; and a constitutional law restoring his immunity.

What other court cases has Mr Berlusconi been involved in?

Mr Berlusconi has been on trial many times. By 2009, Mr Berlusconi had been involved in 2,500 hearings, had received 587 visits from the police and had spent 174m euros (£155m) in legal fees during his political career.

The Italian prime minister has been found guilty variously of illegal party financing, corruption, bribery and false accounting - but he always won on appeal, thereby avoiding jail.

In many other cases he was either acquitted or time ran out under Italy's statute of limitations.

Here are some of the cases brought against him:

Lodo Mondadori case: Prosecutors claim that Mr Berlusconi paid huge bribes to a judge in Rome to win a take-over battle for the publisher Mondadori, which Mr Berlusconi's Fininvest took over in 1991. The case went to the appeal court, but the statute of limitations expired before the appeal was completed so Mr Berlusconi was acquitted.

In October 2009 Fininvest was ordered to pay 750m euros in damages over the takeover, and Mr Berlusconi was listed as "jointly responsible" in the case.

Telecinco case: Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon accused Mr Berlusconi of tax fraud and breaching anti-trust laws in Spain through his stake in the private Spanish TV company, Telecinco. Mr Berlusconi and all of his co-accused were acquitted.

AC Milan case: Mr Berlusconi was accused of false accounting over alleged irregularities in the purchase of a player for AC Milan, the football club he owns. The statute of limitations expired and the case was closed with an acquittal on December 13, 2005.

Fininvest case: Mr Berlusconi was accused of false accounting with the prosecution alleging he had doctored the accounts of offshore companies that form part of his Fininvest holding company. The statute of limitations expired after Mr Berlusconi's government introduced new laws on false accounting. Mr Berlusconi was acquitted.

Medusa Cinema case: Mr Berlusconi was sentenced to 16 months in jail for false accounting of 10bn lire. He appealed and was acquitted on the charge after the court said the case could not be proven.

Bribing financial police case: Mr Berlusconi was found guilty on four counts and sentenced to two years and nine months in jail. However, the statute of limitations expired for three of the charges, and he was acquitted on the fourth on appeal.

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