Italian premier takes stand in trial

Tuesday, May 6, 2003

ROME -- Silvio Berlusconi, the first sitting Italian premier ever to stand trial, told a Milan court trying him on bribery charges Monday that he intervened in a contested business deal only to serve the nation's interests.

The billionaire media mogul is accused of bribing judges in Rome to influence a ruling on the sale of former state-controlled food company SME in the 1980s, before he was a politician. Berlusconi said then-Premier Bettino Craxi asked him to get involved because the arranged sale price was too low.

"I had no direct interest and Craxi begged me to intervene because he believed the operation damaged the state," Berlusconi told a packed courtroom during his approximate 45-minute address. He previously has denied the charges.

Craxi was among those who fell from power amid corruption probes a decade ago.

Berlusconi, who is Italy's richest man, served briefly as prime minister in 1994 and was elected again in 2001. He has been involved in several legal cases related to his business dealings. Previous convictions -- none of which came when he was in office -- were reversed on appeal or annulled because the statute of limitations had expired.

Parliament members had immunity from prosecution until 1993.

As Berlusconi left the court Monday, a man approached him and shouted, "You'll end up like Ceausescu!" -- a reference to Romania's toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed during the 1989 anti-communist revolt.

The ANSA news agency said the premier turned to his police escorts and told them to get the man's identity. The agency said the premier's office planned to file misdemeanor charges of "verbal abuse" against the man.

Government officials would not immediately confirm this.

Berlusconi made his first appearance at the 3-year-old SME trial last month, but made no comments to the court. He says left-leaning prosecutors are targeting him in this and other cases.

Berlusconi's co-defendants in the SME case include his former defense minister, Cesare Previti, who was convicted in a bribery case last week and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Berlusconi claims magistrates have launched dozens of probes into his business interests and held more than 1,500 court hearings about him.

The premier's allies have criticized European Commission President Romano Prodi for his role in the SME deal. They say Prodi, the former chief of the state-controlled holding company that was selling off SME, agreed to a price that was far too low.

Prodi said in Bologna he was not worried about the accusations.

"It's not a trial against me," he said.

The SME hearing came as Berlusconi's government began a strong push for an immunity law.

In a newspaper interview Sunday, a senior Berlusconi party member argued for swift immunity measures to protect the international image of the Italian premier, noting that the country takes over the rotating European Union presidency on July 1.

"It's not the time for lectures, accusations and insinuations," Senate President Marcello Pera said in Sunday's La Repubblica newspaper.

Opposition leader Piero Fassino called the immunity proposal "the umpteenth judicial psychodrama starring the premier and his friends."

"Berlusconi confuses the letter 'm' with the letter 'p' -- in the name of immunity he's seeking impunity," he said.

Berlusconi argues that repealing immunity opened politicians to politically motivated charges.

Two immunity proposals are being discussed: one that would block trials against the country's top five officials -- the premier, the president, the leaders of both houses of parliament and the chief of the constitutional court -- and another that would restore immunity for hundreds of sitting parliamentarians.

Government members seemed to be pushing for the limited-immunity proposal, noting that the idea was suggested by an opposition member. Center-left leaders disavow the proposal.

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