Italy's Berlusconi faces showdowns with justice

ROME, Feb 26, 2011 (AFP) - A tax fraud trial involving Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resumes in Milan on Monday, in the first of a series of showdowns between the embattled leader and Italy's justice system.

The 74-year-old media tycoon turned politician has been asked to appear before the court to face accusations that his Mediaset business empire engaged in a fraud to make its revenues appear smaller than they really were.

The trial was suspended in April 2010 after parliament adopted a hugely controversial law that granted Berlusconi temporary immunity but Italy's Constitutional Court partially struck down the legislation last month.

Berlusconi could still try and avoid appearing in court by saying that his official duties prevent him from attending the hearing.

His political career spanning almost two decades has been plagued by legal troubles but Berlusconi himself has not appeared in court for years.

His personal lawyers, Niccolo Ghedini and Piero Longo, are both also lawmakers from Berlusconi's ruling People of Freedom party.

Monday's hearing may be brief and uneventful but it signals the start of a slew of trials for Berlusconi, culminating in a trial starting April 6 for having sex with an underage prostitute and trying to cover it up.

On March 5, there will be a hearing on alleged fraud in the purchase of television rights by Mediatrade-RTI, one of Berlusconi's many companies.

The judge is set to decide whether the prime minister should stand trial.

Berlusconi is set to appear before a court in Milan again on March 11 for a trial on alleged bribery of a witness. The trial had also been suspended by the immunity law approved by Berlusconi's government last year.

Berlusconi is accused of paying his former British lawyer David Mills 600,000 dollars (436,000 euros) to commit perjury in two trials in the 1990s.

Mills was sentenced for perjury in February 2009 and the conviction was upheld on appeal but the case against him expired under a statute of limitations that has also saved Berlusconi from several convictions.

Italy has a 10-year limit for prosecutions. Even as it threw out the case, Italy's top appeals court recognised it was "a very grave case of corruption."

But, while Berlusconi has proved able at dealing with corruption inquiries, the real nightmare for him begins on April 6 with a trial involving voluptuous pole dancer Karima El Mahroug, better known as "Ruby the Heart Stealer".

Berlusconi's lawyers are expected to argue that the Milan court does not have the right to hear the case, reports said, while the government is trying to restore full parliamentary immunity that would also cover Berlusconi.

The opposition accuses Berlusconi of creating laws just so he can dodge criminal investigations, while the prime minister regularly says that prosecutors are out to get him and have a left-wing bias.

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