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Italian opposition calls on Berlusconi to quit

May 20, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published on the FT: May 20 2009

Italian opposition leaders on Wednesday called on Silvio Berlusconi to resign as prime minister after a court accused him of having paid his UK lawyer, David Mills, to lie to protect his Fininvest business empire in the 1990s.

Mr Berlusconi rejected the accusations contained in a 400-page judgement issued by the Milan court on Tuesday. The prime minister said he would make a statement to parliament while his spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, dismissed opposition declarations on Wednesday as a “politically timed attack” ahead of next month’s European and local elections.

Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the opposition Italy of Values party and a former magistrate, stated in a radio interview: “Silvio Berlusconi should resign after the Mills sentence as he no longer has the moral qualifications to govern.”

Other opposition representatives called on the prime minister to revoke the law passed by his centre-right majority in parliament last year giving Mr Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while in office. The government said he was not able to run the country while being hounded by the courts.

Anna Finocchiaro, head of the opposition Democrats in the Senate, also warned Mr Berlusconi not to use parliament as a platform to start a “a trial against the judges”. The prime minister, who has not set a date to address parliament, earlier said the “scandalous judgment” would lead him to speak his mind of “certain judges”.

None of Mr Berlusconi’s numerous court cases have resulted in him serving a jail sentence, mostly either because of acquittals or the length of the appeals process resulting in cases being dropped because of the statute of limitations, as seems likely to happen in the trial involving Mr Mills.

Even if the political fallout from this case is limited – as Mr Berlusconi, 72, enjoys a large parliamentary majority – it is likely to strengthen the government’s resolve to reform the judiciary and sets the stage for further confrontations between the prime minister and what he calls politically motivated judges.

The accusations against Mr Berlusconi were contained in the court’s reasoning that explained its conviction of Mr Mills in February and the imposition of a 4-1/2 year jail sentence. Mr Mills, husband of the UK Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, has denied all charges and is free pending his appeal.

Mr Berlusconi was originally a co-accused in the case, but the court, led by Justice Nicoletta Gandus, had to suspend the prime minister’s participation in the trial after the immunity law was passed.

The court on Tuesday said the late Carlo Bernasconi, then a manager at Fininvest, had acted “in the name of and for the account of Silvio Berlusconi” in making the alleged payment of $600,000 to Mr Mills.

Mr Mills was quoted by the daily La Repubblica on Wednesday as saying the money he received had not been given by Mr Berlusconi.

Mr Mills, an expert on offshore companies, had worked for Mr Berlusconi in the 1990s. In two trials at the time Mr Mills was a witness for prosecutors who alleged that the offshore companies were used to make illegal political contributions and to bribe tax police.

The Milan court on Tuesday said Mr Mills had acted as: “false witness, allowing on the one hand Silvio Berlusconi and the Fininvest group to go unpunished from the accusations, and at least maintain the major profits made through illegal financial and corporate operations which had been carried out until that date; and on the other hand he (Mr Mills) pursued his own considerable economic advantage”.

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