Berlusconi tax trial opens

ANDREW GUMBEL

Rome

Silvio Berlusconi is a man well used to creating media circuses, but he may have doubts about the one that awaits him in Milan's Palace of Justice this morning. Before a barrage of television cameras, only some working for his Fininvest media empire, the former prime minister will attend the opening session of a trial in which he will be accused of bribing tax inspectors in exchange for a lenient audit of his businesses.

It will be a symbolic moment in these turbulent times. Not only is this the case that precipitated the collapse of Mr Berlusconi's coalition and forced him to resign 13 months ago; it is also the most glaring of several recent indications that the magnate-turned-politician is sliding down the slippery pole of Italian public life.

Mr Berlusconi is accused, along with his brother Paolo and nine others, of paying around 380 million lire to officers of the finance police. By Italian standards this would be a minor misdemeanour, even if the defendants were proven guilty - most of the Milan fashion world is currently on trial for exactly the same thing.

But the case interferes awkwardly with the political timetable, which might require Mr Berlusconi any moment now to shuttle between the Milan court - which will meet once a week or so for the next few months - and the campaign trail in the run-up to a general election. Already there are signs that Mr Berlusconi is being outmanoeuvred in his conservative coalition by the far-right leader Gianfranco Fini.

It could also give a wide public airing to more embarrassing charges against Mr Berlusconi that are yet to come to court - notably the allegation that he paid massive kickbacks to his former political mentor and friend, the disgraced Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi. The trial could be bad for business, too, as Mr Berlusconi considers floating a large chunk of his media and advertising assets on the open market to raise capital to plug his gaping debts.

Mr Berlusconi and his friends have already launched a full-frontal attack on his chief accuser, the former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro who was the star of Italy's anti-corruption drive three years ago. The Berlusconi family newspaper, Il Giornale of Milan, has produced allegation after allegation that Mr Di Pietro accepted favours and planned to use his judicial status as a platform for political revolution.

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