Berlusconi attacks 'leftist mud-slingers'

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A defiant Silvio Berlusconi emerged from court yesterday to launch a bitter attack on "leftist" magistrates who have accused the Italian Prime Minister of offences ranging from tax fraud to paying for sex with a minor.

"I have spent a surreal morning," he told a cheering crowd of supporters outside the Milan court, scene of the latest in a series of hearings on tax fraud charges related to his Mediaset broadcasting empire."The Prime Minister is being accused by prosecutors who are slinging mud at him and at the country at a time when we should be stronger so as to be able to defend the country on the international stage," he said.

His decision to appear in court yesterday contrasted with his absence from the start of the more embarrassing "Rubygate" case last week, in which he is accused of paying an underage teenager for sex and abusing the powers of his office to try to cover the case up.

Mr Berlusconi said nothing in court but, speaking to supporters before the hearing, he called the prostitution charges against him "groundless" and said he was the victim of an attempt by "leftist" enemies to eliminate him from the political scene.

Yesterday's trial centred on charges that Mediaset bought television and film rights at inflated prices through offshore front companies, leaving the difference to be skimmed off to avoid tax and create secret slush funds. Mediaset and Mr Berlusconi deny the charges.