/ 28 March 2011

Berlusconi makes rare appearance at fraud hearing

Berlusconi Makes Rare Appearance At Fraud Hearing

Silvio Berlusconi appeared before a judge for the first time in eight years on Monday over allegations of business fraud — part of a web of legal woes for the billionaire Italian prime minister.

The hearing in the judge’s chambers in Milan was part of a process to decide whether Berlusconi, a billionaire tycoon-turned-politician with a vast media empire, should stand trial in the case involving his company, Mediatrade.

The 74-year-old is already a defendant in two separate trials.

“Everything went well,” Berlusconi told reporters after coming out from the court building, saying he was preparing to attend another hearing next Monday in the case involving fiscal fraud and breach of trust allegations.

Asked by reporters about his upcoming trial due to start next week on charges of having sex with an underage prostitute and then using his status to try and cover it up, Berlusconi responded: “That’s a different trial.”

‘Ridiculous and unfounded’
Speaking before Monday’s hearing in a telephone interview with Channel 5 television, which he owns, Berlusconi said the Mediatrade accusations, which date back to the early 2000,s were “ridiculous and unfounded”.

“I am the most accused person in history and in the universe,” he said.

“There are still people who use the legal code as an ideological tool and think that politicised judges can destroy an enemy who has been victorious in elections and has the strength of popular consensus,” he added.

The prime minister waved to the cameras as he entered the court building.

Coming out, he was met by rival protests of opponents who chanted “Shame! Resign!” and supporters who shouted: “Silvio! Silvio! Hip hip, hooray!”

Edoardo Colombo (45), a supporter of Berlusconi, told Agence France-Presse that “no normal citizen would have to put up with this level of excessive pressure”.

“No one has ever been able to prove he has done anything illegal,” said Colombo, one of about 100 supporters shouting: “Silvio you must resist!”

Giovanni Esposito, a 46-year-old shopkeeper, said: “We have come to support the prime minister against judicial attacks from some politicised judges.”

The last time Berlusconi participated in a court hearing was in 2003 on bribery charges involving his business interests, which were later thrown out.

Raunchy parties
Berlusconi is a defendant in two ongoing trials and is also set to stand trial starting on April 6 on charges of having sex for money with a then 17-year-old nightclub dancer nicknamed “Ruby the Heart Stealer”.

He is then accused of using his position to try to cover up the alleged crime by putting pressure on police to release Ruby, whose real name is Karima El Mahroug, when she was arrested for theft last year.

Both Berlusconi and Ruby deny having sex but Italian newspapers have been filled with leaks from testimony from the young woman, who is now 18, indicating that she attended raunchy parties at Berlusconi’s Milan residence.

The abuse of power charge carries a sentence of up to 12 years in prison.

Berlusconi has denied all charges — swearing innocence on the lives of his children and grandchildren in typically flamboyant style — and has accused prosecutors of conspiring against him in a left-wing plot.

Critics accuse the prime minister of trying to shield himself from the law.

“There aren’t very many of us but we want to show that Italy does not agree with what the prime minister is doing,” said Luca Ragone, a 28-year-old student and a local councillor for the opposition Italy of Values party. — AFP