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Berlusconi vows to defend himself in court

October 8, 2009

by Guy Dinmore, published on the FT on 8 October 2009

Silvio Berlusconi, centre-right prime minister, last night set the stage for an all-out confrontation with Italy’s judiciary by denouncing the constitutional court as being dominated by left-wing judges after it plunged his centre-right government into crisis in stripping him of his immunity from prosecution.

Visibly agitated, Mr Berlusconi told reporters he had no intention of resigning or calling snap elections. He spoke within an hour of the court’s decision, by nine judges to six, that a law passed by parliament last year granting him immunity was unconstitutional.

The ruling, which becomes effective as soon as it is published, was based on the view that all Italians are equal before the law according to the constitution. The government has no recourse, meaning that two corruption trials involving Mr Berlusconi in Milan will resume.

“Nothing happens. We will go on,” Mr Berlusconi said in Rome, accusing the court of being a “political body” and having 11 “left-wing” judges on its bench.

In defending the immunity law, the government argued that Mr Berlusconi could not run the country while hounded by the courts. Stripped of his immunity, commentators said, the 73-year-old prime minister risks a “lame duck” label that will handicap his administration and fuel an internal power struggle for his eventual succession.

“Without Silvio the country would be in the hands of the left and you all know what would happen,” Mr Berlusconi declared, concluding: “The trials that they are going to throw against me are a farce. Long live Italy! Long live Berlusconi!”

One of the first acts of Mr Belusconi’s third government, elected last year, was to pass a law granting immunity to the four top holders of state office. At the time Mr Berlusconi was on trial in two cases – accused of bribing David Mills, his former UK lawyer, to lie in court to protect his Fininvest media empire, and accused of tax fraud and false accounting in the acquisition of television and film rights by Mediaset, his tv company. Mr Berlusconi has denied wrong-doing.

Government aides stressed that Mr Berlusconi still had the support of the Italian people.

Leaders of the opposition centre-left Democratic party revealed their relief in not having to fight an early election. Opinion polls show Mr Berlusconi enjoying broad support despite the economic crisis and relentless exposure of left-leaning newspapers of his personal scandals that have led his wife, Veronica Lario, to ask for a divorce.

Going beyond his assault on the courts, Mr Berlusconi also attacked television — of which he owns the three main private channels — newspapers and Giorgio Napolitano, the widely respected head of state, as being of the left.

Mr Napolitano, a former communist, replied that he supported the constitution. “I’m not interested in his words,” Mr Berlusconi retorted.

Ministers quickly moved to declare their allegiance. “To be part of the government led by Silvio Berlusconi has been and will be a greatest honour,” said Giulio Tremonti, finance minister and a contender to succeed the prime minister one day.

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