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Berlusconi sets out vision for Forza Italia

Lawyers appeal seven-year sentence for underage prostitution

14 January, 17:38
Berlusconi sets out vision for Forza Italia (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA) - Rome, January 14 - Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi announced new political ambitions for his center-right party on Tuesday, suggesting he has not been sidetracked by a series of recent legal blows, including a seven-year conviction for sleeping with an underage prostitute and abusing his office in a lie to cover it up.

The media magnate said that his Forza Italia (FI) party, re-launched late last year, should be broad-based and welcome new "resources" from outside. The 77-year-old billionaire has vowed to keep leading Italy's centre right after he was ejected from parliament in November following a definitive tax-fraud conviction. Shortly before that he dissolved his old party, the People of Freedom (PdL), and re-created a new one under the name of the group he used to start his political career two decades ago, saying it was necessary to recreate the spirit of that time. He has said the revived Forza Italia should have greater involvement from youngsters and business people. "We shouldn't be afraid to open the doors of our movement to the new resources that look into it and want to make their contribution to our revival in a time of great transformation for Italian politics," Berlusconi said in a statement. "Our victories of the future, like those of the past, will depend on Forza Italia's ability to remain an open movement, determined to take the centre right back to government".

The three-time premier said that the new party would not have a central coordinator because it wants to be deeply entrenched throughout the country. FI withdrew its support for Premier Enrico Letta's left-right coalition government shortly before Berlusconi was ejected from parliament. Berlusconi has been calling for a fresh vote, saying general elections should be staged in May to coincide with already-scheduled European elections and save public money. Letta's government survived FI's defection thanks to the support of the New Centre Right (NCD), a small splinter group that broke with Berlusconi over his bid to sink Letta. The ex-premier is ineligible to stand in elections after the the tax-fraud conviction, which he says is part of a two-decade-long campaign of persecution by left-wing elements in the judiciary who want to eliminate him from the political arena. Berlusconi has said he was hopeful the tax-fraud verdict will be overturned and he will be able to top FI's lists of candidates in every Italian region at the European elections. The billionaire is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights and seeking to have the tax-fraud case reopened in Brescia.

Meanwhile judges are set to review an appeal in another Berlusconi case that's received the most international attention.

In June he was convicted for paying Karima 'Ruby' El Mahroug for sex, then lying to police to spring her from jail in an unrelated theft charge, claiming she was the niece of fallen Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and her detention could spark an international incident.

An appeal request made public Tuesday argues Berlusconi should have been shown leniency given the "extenuating circumstances" surrounding his stature as a three-time premier, the head of a political party and his advanced age. In their appeal request, over 400 pages long, Berlusconi's attorneys said his "extremely high prestige" should afford him leniency "due to extenuating circumstances". Several political associates of Berlusconi as well as 18 of the 32 young women who took part in his parties could be charged with committing perjury. The women supported Berlusconi's claims that the gatherings at his home were not "bunga bunga" sex parties but innocent and merry affairs featuring burlesque performances. His lawyers argued in their appeal request that "there is no proof supporting" the assertion that he paid off Ruby, but rather the money was "merely to help a person in need". Berlusconi's lawyers admit he paid her sums of money, "certainly not to 'buy the witness', nor for the alleged promise of payment for pretending to be crazy". Throughout hearings several defense witnesses admitted to receiving money and accommodations from the billionaire ex-premier that both parties insisted were gifts and not bribes.

The appeal request also insists that Berlusconi was among a number of people under the false impression that she was the adult niece of Mubarak, rather than an underage runaway.