Berlusconi renews attacks on magistrates at trial

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attacked prosecutors on Monday as he arrived in court for the latest in a series of tax fraud and sex trials that have overshadowed Italy's political life for months.

Berlusconi's legal battles have dominated the political agenda, prompting government accusations that he is being unfairly targeted by left-wing judges. The opposition says he has been focusing on the cases to the exclusion of all else.

Arriving at the Milan courthouse, Berlusconi welcomed the news that al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden had been killed by US forces, before launching a fresh attack on magistrates he says are trying to destroy his career.

"There is something which is not going in the right direction for a democracy to have government leaders humiliated by having to spend hours in court while these important international events are taking place," he told reporters.

He dismissed the charges against him as "pure invention".

The preliminary hearing is one of a related set of tax fraud cases linked to the billionaire prime minister's media empire.

Berlusconi and a number of others including his son Pier Silvio Berlusconi are accused of fraud and embezzlement over television rights. Prosecutors say they were acquired at inflated prices through front companies.

Prosecutors say Berlusconi and his associates were able to skim off millions of dollars which they say then went into secret political slush funds.

He and the other accused deny all the charges.

During the 3-1/2-hour hearing, Berlusconi spoke in general terms about the international television rights market and intermediaries' role in it, Niccolo Ghedini, the prime minister's lawyer, told reporters.

Berlusconi greeted supporters on leaving the court, saying: "It all went well". He did not speak to reporters.

The atmosphere outside the court was more subdued than at previous hearings, where supporters have staged impromptu demonstrations that turned into mini political rallies. Reporters and police outnumbered the small group of supporters.

At previous trials, Berlusconi has unleashed blistering attacks on what he says are leftist magistrates bent on destroying him and bringing down the government. He has vowed to curb their powers as part of a reform of the justice system.

Critics say the proposed reforms are designed mainly to help him avoid trial or sentencing. The changes include measures to shorten the statute of limitations on some criminal cases and impose tighter disciplinary measures on magistrates.

The so-called Mediaset and Mediatrade fraud trials are not related to the "Rubygate" allegations that Berlusconi paid for sex with a nightclub dancer when she was below the legal age limit of 18 for sex with a prostitute.

The trial comes two weeks before local elections across Italy which will test the accuracy of opinion polls that suggest the ruling centre-right has been badly damaged by the cases.

Milan, Berlusconi's home city where the trial is taking place, will be one of the most closely watched contests as Mayor Letizia Moratti, a former Berlusconi minister, seeks to retain control over Italy's financial capital.

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