Under the sword of Damocles

Silvio Berlusconi this week set a dubious precedent in Italian legal history by becoming the first serving prime minister to appear at his own trial.

Judging by the number of former prime ministers that he mentioned in his testimony, the scandal-tainted media tycoon wanted as many as possible of Italy’s quaking political elite to share the experience.

“I am proud, I repeat, I am proud of my conduct,” said the billionaire businessman accused of bribing a judge with £85 000 to bar the sale of the state-owned food giant SME to Carlo de Benedetti, owner of Buitoni.

Berlusconi, backed by rival food giants Barilla and Ferrero, clinched the deal with a higher bid for SME.

If he was proud of his conduct, he could not say the same for Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, or Bettino Craxi, former Italian prime minister. As Italy is about to take over the EU presidency in July, the comment did not go unnoticed in Brussels either.

Gesturing passionately from behind the defendants’ table, Berlusconi told a packed Milan courtroom that Prodi, also president of a holding company called IRI, had tried to sell the food giant to Benedetti at an “outrageous” cut price.
Berlusconi’s lawyers presented a letter from a key businessman involved, saying that Prodi was personally trying to give the deal to Benedetti.

Berlusconi also claimed that Craxi, the then socialist prime minister, had begged him into bidding for the food giant as a service to the Italian state.

“I had no direct interest and Craxi begged me to intervene because he believed the operation damaged the state,” Berlusconi claimed.

To ensure other high-profile names are dragged through the courts, Berlusconi’s lawyers have called for 1 800 witnesses, including many key political figures, to testify in court —thus prolonging the trial by months just as it was drawing to a close.

Prodi, rumoured to be the only man who could pick up the fallout if Berlusconi’s government should implode, brushed off the comments. “I’m not worried. This is not my trial,” he said.

His supporters said Berlusconi was “firing an unloaded gun”.

The courtroom showdown was a sudden change of tack by the prime minister, who has kept his distance from the three-year trial. He has tried to brush off allegations of corruption as part of a communist conspiracy by the “red toga” Milan judges, bent on destroying his conservative government.

It was seen as a desperate move by a man feeling the noose of a corruption conviction tighten around his neck and facing the prospect of losing Italy’s top job for the second time in a decade.

The chances of his being convicted are “very, very high”, said James Walston, political scientist at the American University of Rome.

Berlusconi was forced to face this threat last week when his ally Cesare Previti, a former defence minister, was sentenced to 11 years for bribing judges to help swing several multimillion-pound business deals in the 1980s.

The trial was seen as the “antipasto” or curtain raiser to Berlusconi’s own trial, which is due to conclude later this year.

Berlusconi, named by Forbes Magazine as the third-most powerful billionaire in 2002, was forced out of office after less than a year in 1994 following his indictment for fraud and bribery. He has battled scores of more minor fraud investigations, most of which have been thrown out, since his landslide election victory in May 2001.

He has always dismissed the allegations, protesting that he is being “persecuted rather than prosecuted” by the judges. He says power has gone to the heads of the judges in Milan since the “Hands Clean” trials purged the country’s old political class in the early 1990s.

The latest twist of the Berlusconi’s corruption trial has sent the Italian political class into spasms of fear at the possible damage and embarrassment of a corruption conviction during the EU presidency.

The prime minister warned earlier this year — in a characteristically fiery TV address — that if convicted he will not stand down. Instead he may call snap elections to confirm that he is still the Italians’ chosen leader and in effect overrule the court.

Like Berlusconi, many Italians are convinced the Milan judges are left-wing troublemakers trying to undermine the conservative government. And, in a land weary of and accustomed to corruption scandals, many would prefer to avoid the looming constitutional crisis even if that means justice being put on hold.

Italy’s biggest selling daily, Corriere della Sera, has warned that Il Cavaliere (The Knight) is now governing with “the sword of Damocles over his head” and called for emergency legislation to give top government executives immunity against prosecution and “avoid a devastating war for everyone”.

Alternatively, Italy could decide to put Berlusconi’s trial on ice until he is no longer in office. But Italy’s fragmented opposition left warned it would be a scandal for the prime minister to wriggle out of the corruption trial now.

“Berlusconi talks of immunity [from prosecution]. What he wants is impunity,” said Piero Fassini, the head of the Democrats of the Left. Members of the public, outside the fascist-era Milan court building, hurled abuse as the prime minister left.

“Let yourself be tried, you joker,” shouted one irate person. “You’ll meet the same end as [Romanian dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu.”

Since he returned as prime minister, the heat has been gradually turned up on Berlusconi, and the burning issue of the conflict of interests for the tycoon-cum-prime minister has reached a head. Many say Berlusconi’s media empire, Mediaset, is eroding freedom of expression in Italy, systematically running the state broadcasting service, RAI, into the ground.

Despite his landslide victory at the polls, it is hard to find a single Italian these days who admits to giving him his or her vote. Even the United Nations has indicated its concern, in a leaked report, that the Italian prime minister acts as if he were “above the law”.

Il Cavaliere’s flamboyant personal style, along with promises of an economic miracle, has always appealed to the electorate but it has not helped ingratiate him with his political opponents. He is constantly criticised for running Italy like a king, holding court with his right-wing political allies in his sumptuous private apartments in Rome.

From his luxury villa at Arcore, outside his home town, Milan, the prime minister records messages to his people from his tailor-made private TV studio. In the grounds, he has had an ornate family tomb built, with places reserved for his closest allies.

Berlusconi, always immaculately dressed and flashing a confident smile from his suntanned face, has shown little sign until now of being ruffled by the court case. Most commentators expect that he can still find a way out.

Last year his government passed legislation allowing defendants to appeal against judges they consider biased. But, when the prime minister then used the legislation to appeal for his trial to be transferred to a new court, the Supreme Court rejected his request.

Analysts say even if Il Cavaliere can rush through new legislation to keep the handcuffs at bay, the damage has already been done.

“He is probably going to stay in power but he will look very sleazy. And it will make Italy look very much like a banana republic,” said Walston. — Â

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