Berlusconi Attends Fraud Case Hearing


Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attended a legal hearing on Monday for the first time in eight years, over allegations of fiscal fraud and breach of trust in his business interests.

The hearing in judge's chambers in Milan was part of a process to decide whether Berlusconi, a billionaire tycoon-turned-politician with a vast media empire, should stand trial in the case involving his company Mediatrade.

It is one of several legal cases against the 74-year-old.

"The accusations are ridiculous and unfounded," Berlusconi said in a telephone interview with Channel 5 television, which he owns.

"I am the most accused person in history and in the universe," he said.

"There are still people who use the legal code as an ideological tool and think that politicized judges can destroy an enemy who has been victorious in elections and has the strength of popular consensus," he added.

The prime minister waved to the cameras as he entered the court building.

The last time Berlusconi participated in a legal hearing was in 2003 on bribery charges involving his business interests which were later thrown out.

Pier Silvio Cipolotti, a member of the law office representing Berlusconi, previously told AFP that the hearing was closed-door and that the prime minister was unlikely to make any official statements during it.

Berlusconi is already a defendant in two ongoing trials and is also set to stand trial starting on April 6 on charges of having sex with an underage prostitute and then using his position to try and cover up the alleged crime.

The abuse of power charge carries a sentence of up to 12 years in prison.

Berlusconi has denied all charges -- swearing innocence on the lives of his children and grandchildren in typically dramatic style -- and has accused prosecutors of conspiring against him in a left-wing plot.

Around 100 of the prime minister's supporters gathered outside the main court building in Milan to protest against the slew of trials against him.

Edoardo Colombo, 45, a long-standing supporter of Berlusconi, told AFP that "no normal citizen would have to put up with this level of excessive pressure."

"No-one has ever been able to prove he has done anything illegal," he said.

They shouted: "Silvio you must resist, resist, resist."

There were also a few opposition protesters outside the court building.

"There aren't very many of us but we want to show that Italy does not agree with what the prime minister is doing," said Luca Ragone, a 28-year-old student and a local councilor for the opposition Italy of Values party.

One placard at the protest read: "Welcome they're waiting for you inside."