Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Berlusconi pleads for final chance

Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi is facing the end of his political career
Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi is facing the end of his political career

Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has begged senators not to kick him out of parliament, claiming new evidence proves he did not commit tax fraud, in a last-ditch bid to stave off a vote that could keep him out of public office for years.

Berlusconi claimed that new statements from 12 witnesses and 15,000 pages of documentation from Hong Kong prove he is innocent - even though his tax fraud trial is over and his guilty verdict has been upheld by Italy's highest court.

Berlusconi wrote to senators from the centre-left Democratic Party and populist Five Star Movement 48 hours before the Senate is due to vote on whether to kick him out of parliament because of the conviction.

He said Italy's democracy is at stake with the vote.

In the letter Berlusconi set aside his typically combative tone and painted himself as a concerned elder statesman, saying he understood their indignation and "authentic love for Italy," but that freedom itself was at stake.

"I ask you to truly reflect in the intimacy of your conscience ... before taking a decision that concerns not just myself but our democracy," he said.

The 77-year-old media mogul was convicted last year over the purchase of rights to broadcast US movies on his Mediaset empire through a series of offshore companies that involved the false declaration of payments to avoid taxes. His defence argued that he was busy in politics at the time and no longer involved in managing the day-to-day activities of the business.

Berlusconi read aloud the text of an affidavit by a one-time manager of a US company who insisted the billionaire had nothing to do with the film deals.

Italy's high court upheld the conviction and four-year prison sentence in August. A 2012 law bans anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison from holding or running for public office for six years.

Berlusconi's lawyers have argued the 2012 law cannot be applied retroactively to crimes committed before it was passed, but the Senate vote to expel him appears poised to go ahead unless his allies can pull off a last-minute delay.

Ever since the high court ruling, Berlusconi has been battling to keep his power base intact, with decreasing success. Last month he was humiliated in parliament when he was forced to back down from his threat to bring down the government after his ministers refused to back him.

Then on November 15, his one-time political heir, Angelino Alfano, split the centre-right, refusing to join Berlusconi's new Forza Italia party and launching his own New Centre-Right with dozens of MPs opposed to the hawkish direction Forza Italia was taking.

Berlusconi has also lost the backing of Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano, who could have pardoned him. Mr Napolitano had said he would consider any request for clemency over the tax fraud conviction, but Berlusconi said over the weekend in a heated attack on the head of state that he should grant the pardon without even being asked.

As a result, Berlusconi's latest performance appeared aimed primarily at rallying his base, who have been called to come out to protest at the Senate vote on Wednesday afternoon.

-AP

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