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Berlusconi's legal woes mount with indictment request

Coalition parties say balance of Letta's executive won't be hit

09 May, 16:45
Berlusconi's legal woes mount with indictment request (By Paul Virgo) (ANSA) - Rome, May 9 - Silvio Berlusconi's legal headaches grew on Thursday when Naples prosecutors said they had requested the ex-premier be sent to trial over allegations he bribed former Senator Sergio De Gregorio to change political sides.

On Wednesday, a Milan court upheld a four-year conviction and a five-year ban on serving in public office for Berlusconi for tax fraud on American film rights bought by his Mediaset TV empire. The three-time Italian premier is also on trial in Milan over accusations he paid for sex with an underage Moroccan dancer.

He denies any wrongdoing and says this week's developments are part of a campaign by left-wing magistrates who are persecuting him for political reasons. The Neapolitan investigators suspect Berlusconi paid De Gregorio three million euros to switch sides from the centre left to the centre right.

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

De Gregorio has admitted to receiving two million euros from Berlusconi, which he did not declare for tax purposes, but denied that it was bribe money.

The Naples prosecutors also requested that De Gregorio and Walter Lavitola, an associate of the ex-premier's and ex-director of the newspaper L'Avanti!, be indicted.

Valter Lavitola received a two-year, eight-month sentence in March for attempting to blackmail Berlusconi in exchange for hushing up payments to escorts at alleged sex parties at the ex-premier's home.

There has been speculation the new legal problems could disrupt the delicate balance of Premier Enrico Letta's unprecedented left-right coalition government, which was formed last month to end a long deadlock after February's general election failed to produce a clear winner. Some thought Berlusconi might pull the support of his centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) party in anger at the magistrates' actions.

Meanwhile, some political pundits have said parts of Letta's centre-left Democratic Party may rebel against the PdL's attacks on the judiciary. The PdL has said Berlusconi will attend a big protest in Brescia on Saturday against the treatment he is being dealt by magistrates. But both sides on Thursday sought to play down fears Letta's government will not be dragged into the wrangle.

"Yesterday's ruling in Milan and the request by Naples prosecutors for Silvio Berlusconi to be indicted are clearly attacks not just from judicial forces, but political ones too," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, a senior PdL lawmaker.

"The double aim is to hit Berlusconi and to put the balance of the current government in crisis.

"We aren't going to fall for provocations as regards the government. The life and future of the government will depend on its contents concerning economic policies and reforms of the institutions. Junior Economy Minister Stefano Fassina of the PD said the centre left did not want Berlusconi's problems having an impact on the government either.

"We all intend to keep Silvio Berlusconi's judicial affairs separate from the activities of the government and of parliament, with which they must not interfere," Fassina said. Comedian Beppe Grillo said his anti-establishment 5-Star Movement would present a vote in parliament for Berlusconi to be declared ineligible to take part in public life.

"In any democratic country, Berlusconi would be in prison or would have been removed from any public role while here he tips the scale," said Grillo, whose movement won around a quarter of the votes in a near three-way tie in February's elections.

Berlusconi has faced more than 30 cases since becoming a politician.

He has never received a definitive conviction at the end of the appeals process, several times because cases had been timed out by the statute of limitations, which one of his governments shortened.

Berlusconi will only have to serve the prison sentence and the ban on public office in relation to the Mediaset case if the ruling is upheld by the supreme Court of Cassation. He is unlikely to actually have to go to prison. The statute of limitations on the case ends next year and three of the four years of the sentence do not have to be served anyway because of an 2006 amnesty law.