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Senate becomes civil plaintiff in Berlusconi trial

Ex-premier accused of bribing lawmaker to change sides

26 February, 17:45
Senate becomes civil plaintiff in Berlusconi trial (By Paul Virgo) (ANSA) - Rome, February 26 - A Naples court on Wednesday granted a request from the Italian Senate to be admitted as a civil plaintiff in a criminal trial into allegations ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi bribed a lawmaker to change political sides.

Berlusconi is accused of paying ex-Senator Sergio De Gregorio a bribe of three million euros to leave the centre left and join the centre right, helping to undermine the 2006-2008 government of Romano Prodi.

De Gregorio has admitted not declaring to the tax authorities two million euros he received and plea-bargained a 20-month sentence. Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia (FI) party reacted with outrage earlier this month when Senate Speaker Pietro Grasso announced he would petition for the Upper House to be a civil plaintiff in a trial - which started February 11 - with some MPs calling for him to quit.

The centre right said the decision was a political move, not a legal one, against the three-time premier, who was ejected from the Senate last year after a definitive tax-fraud conviction in a separate case.

Grasso, a member of Premier Matteo Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party (PD), defended the decision, saying "anti-Berlusconi bias" had nothing to do with it.

"The decision was made in order to give the Senate a voice in an affair we hope is untrue," he said.

He added that parliamentary rules gave him the power to defend the Upper House's "image and dignity when the Senate can be considered the damaged party".

Berlusconi called the decision another in a long line of alleged "coup d'etats" against him which he says include the toppling off his last government in late 2011 and his recent expulsion from parliament.

The 77-year-old billionaire media magnate continues to lead FI, which withdrew from the left-right grand coalition government of then-premier Enrico Letta in November and joined the opposition, from outside parliament.

Prodi's 2006-2008 government fell after losing the support of the Senate, leading to new elections that Berlusconi won.

Valter Lavitola, an associate of the ex-premier's, is also on trial in Naples for allegedly acting as a go-between in the alleged bribery.

Prosecutors have claimed Lavitola tried to bribe other Senators who have not been identified as well.

After the tax-fraud conviction, Berlusconi's first definitive one in 20 years of legal battles, the ex-premier is also appealing two convictions by courts of first instance - one for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his office to try to cover it up; and another for involvement in the publication of an illegal wiretap.

The ex-premier says he has been targeted by politically motivated magistrates since he entered politics in 1994.

While the Naples court admitted the Senate as a plaintiff in the bribery case, it rejected similar petitions from consumer association Codacons and the small centre-left Italy of Values (IdV) party De Gregorio deserted in 2006. Former "Clean Hands" magistrate and ex-senator Antonio Di Pietro said the party he founded would now take the case to the civil courts.

"There is no doubt that the party suffered severe damage to its image, and not just its image," said Di Pietro, who made his debut as a defence lawyer when representing the IdV at the first hearing of the trial.

"We'll proceed against the people who committed the crimes in the civil courts so that justice is done for us," added the former star prosecutor, who made a name for himself representing the State in the "bribesville" political-corruption trials in the 1990s.