Silvio Berlusconi tax fraud trial to restart next month
Richard Owen in Rome
Mr Berlusconi says the two trials against him are false, laughable and absurd
Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's embattled Prime Minister, is to face trial for tax fraud and false accounting next month in the first prosecution since he lost his immunity earlier this month.
The Constitutional Court ruled three weeks ago that a law which Mr Berlusconi pushed through Parliament shortly after coming to power last year giving himself immunity from prosecution was invalid. It infringed the constitutional principle that the law is equal for all.
Following the ruling, a trial in which Mr Berlusconi stands accused of tax fraud and false accounting over the acquisition of TV rights by Mediaset, his television company, is to restart on November 16. According to prosecutors, Mediaset bought the rights at an inflated price from offshore companies controlled by Mr Berlusconi.
The announcement came as appeal judges were ruled in a separate case involving Mr Berlusconi and David Mills, the British tax lawyer and husband of Tessa Jowell, the Olympics Minister. Mr Mills was sentenced to four years and six months imprisonment for corruption in March for having accepted a $600,000 (£366,000) bribe from Mr Berlusconi to give false testimony on his behalf in corruption trials in the 1990s.
After the ruling robbing him of immunity Mr Berlusconi said: "The two trials against me are false, laughable, absurd, and I will show this to Italians by going on television and I will defend myself in the courtroom and make my accusers look ridiculous". He said that he was "the most persecuted man in the world".
Since returning from a "private visit" to Russia last Friday he has been closeted at his mansion at Arcore near Milan, and is reported to be suffering from a mild form of scarlet fever contracted from one of his grandchildren. He is struggling to prevent Giulio Tremonti, the Finance Minister, from resigning over controversial tax cut propsals. Mr Tremonti is backed by the Northern League, a key ally in the centre Right coalition.
However the Italian Left also faces difficulties. The Democratic Party, the main opposition party, chose Pierluigi Bersani, an ex-Communist former minister, as its new leader in primaries on Sunday.
But Mr Bersani's attempts to unite and reinvigorate the opposition have been overshadowed by a scandal involving Piero Marrazzo, the centre Left governor of Lazio, who has suspended himself from office after a video surfaced showing him meeting a transsexual prostitute in a Rome flat this summer. Four policemen are under arrest for allegedly trying to blackmail him over the encounter.
Italian reports said that Mr Berlusconi, who is embroiled in a series of damaging sex scandals, tipped off Mr Marrazzo about the video. Mr Berlusconi had become aware of the video, taken on a mobile phone, when Chi, one the magazines owned by his media group, was offered it for €200,000.
Mr Berlusconi reportedly assured Mr Marrazzo in a phone call that his publications would not publish stills from the video, because he too had suffered from "invasion of privacy". Alfonso Signorini, the editor of Chi, maintained that he had already decided not to publish the pictures before Mr Berlusconi intervened.
"It is absolutely not true that Silvio Berlusconi blocked the publication of the photos about the Marrazzo scandal," he said. "I believe it is true that Berlusconi contacted Marrazzo, but it was not me that told Berlusconi about it."
He said he had told Mr Berlusconi's daughter Marina, who runs Mondadori, the publisher of Chi, and that it was she who told her father about the video. Mr Marrazzo, 51, a former television journalist who is married with three children and was at one time tipped as a future leader of the Democratic Party, at first said the video was a fake and part of a smear campaign against him ahead of regional elections next March.
However, he has handed his duties to the deputy governor, Esterino Montino, and is expected to resign.He said he had made a "terrible mistake" due to his "personal weaknesses".
Mr Berlusconi’s approval rating has slipped from 62 per cent a year ago to 45 per cent, the lowest since his election in April 2008. But his People of Liberty party remains well ahead of led the Democratic Party in the opinion polls, and Mr Bersani's first task is to prevent liberals and left wing Catholics in the Democratic Party led by Francesco Rutelli, a former centre Left leader, from leaving to form their own movement. Mr Rutelli has said he will join forces with the UDC, a Christian Democratic party led by Pierferdinando Casini.