Berlusconi lawyers seek to delay sex-for-hire case
Silvio Berlusconi's judicial woes weighed on Italy's political future on Monday as prosecutors requested an accelerated trial of the former premier on corruption charges and judges in his sex-for-hire trial ordered a medical visit to certify his ailments.
The judicial jockeying comes at a politically sensitive time for Italy, as it seeks to form a stable government following inconclusive national elections on Feb. 24-25.
Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, whose forces finished first in the lower house vote, has ruled out an alliance with Berlusconi's center-right coalition, which finished second. But Bersani's options are limited as comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo, whose movement finished third, refuses to align with any major party. Talks will begin March 20, after Parliament convenes Friday and votes in leaders of both houses.
Berlusconi has been seeking to have two Milan trials postponed due to an eye condition for which he has been hospitalized since Friday. Judges in Berlusconi's tax fraud appeal continued with Saturday's hearing after court-appointed doctors said his ailments were not severe enough to keep him from court.
But another Milan court on Monday granted the motion to delay the hearing in the sex-for-hire trial after ordering a new medical visit to verify the severity of his ailments. Berlusconi's lawyers submitted three medical certificates, citing the eye inflammation and a heart problem, to support the new delay.
Prosecutor Ilda Boccassini had been scheduled to wrap up her closing arguments in the trial in which Berlusconi, 76, is charged with having paid for sex with an underage Moroccan teen and using his influence to cover it up. They were put off until March 18.
Giovanni Orsina, a professor of political science professor at Rome's LUISS university, said the intensifying judicial attention on Berlusconi at such a delicate movement has negative consequences on the political process "whatever you think of whose fault it is."
The situation makes it even more difficult for Bersani to consider any sort of political agreement with the center-right, while further polarizing Berlusconi supporters who see him as a persecuted figure, Orsina said.
Berlusconi has long complained that he is the target of a judicial campaign, citing many trials mostly in Milan and mostly related to his business dealings.
He was convicted in October of tax fraud related to the purchase of the rights to air Hollywood movies on his television networks. Prosecutors in the appeals trial are seeking to uphold the four-year sentence, which includes a five-year ban on public office. A verdict is due in coming weeks in both the appeal case and the sensational sex-for-hire trial.
Angelino Alfano, the head of Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party, has said the pressure to conclude the cases is "an attempt to eliminate Silvio Berlusconi by judicial means, having failed by electoral or democratic measures."
Alfano led a contingent of a few dozen newly elected center-right lawmakers to the courthouse in Milan on Monday to protest the treatment of Berlusconi. They sang the Italian anthem outside, entered the building and then left after a short time.
The head of the magistrate's association, Rodolfo Sabelli, told Sky News 24 television that there was no effort to accelerate the trials, noting that the cases were all in various stages.
"The magistrates' goal is not political and the legitimization of the magistrate does not depend on consensus but on the professionalism and credibility that derives from respect for the law," he said.
Berlusconi also faces new accusations in Naples that he paid a then-senator (EURO)3 million ($3.9 million) to defect to his party, helping to bring down a government led by Romano Prodi 2008. Prosecutors are seeking an accelerated trial that skips the preliminary hearing stage because they believe they have overwhelming evidence.
After being questioned by prosecutors in Rome, the former lawmaker, Sergio De Gregorio, told reporters he had `'the courage" to acknowledge taking an under-the-table payment. He said he had taken a (EURO)2 million payment for a foundation and that that another (EURO)1 million had been deposited in the coffers of a political movement representing Italians who reside abroad. But he insisted he joined Berlusconi's party because of differences with Prodi' policies, not because of the money.
`'The Prodi government would have fallen anyway," De Gregorio said. `'Maybe we gave a little help" to its demise, he said.
In yet another case, Berlusconi was convicted in Milan last week of breach of confidentiality for the illegal publication of wiretapped conversations related to a bank takeover attempt by a newspaper he owns. The court sentenced him to one year in jail, though it did not issue an order on carrying out the sentence. In Italy, it is rare for anyone to be put behind bars pending a possible appeal except in the case of very serious crimes like murder.