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Berlusconi's last stand in bribes case before immunity law shield is raised

Italy's prime minister told a court yesterday that he is the victim of enemies who lie constantly and have thrown mud at him for seven years.

It was only the second time that Silvio Berlusconi has addressed the court in Milan, where he has been on trial for the past three years accused of trying to bribe judges.

It is also likely to be his last court appearance for some time. The Italian parliament is expected to approve a new immunity law this week that will freeze the various court actions against him for as long as he remains in office.

Forced to show up in court for fear that if he did not the prosecutors might persuade the judges to move briskly to summing-up and verdict, Mr Berlusconi took a leaf out of George Orwell's Animal Farm where Orwell has the ruling pigs declare: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

He told the judges: "It's true that the law is equal for all. But for me it is more equal because the majority of Italians voted for me ... A court cannot trespass on the prerogatives of a head of government. This is unacceptable."

But the president of the court, Luisa Ponti, spat back: "We have applied the law. Please restrict your comments to the charges against you."

Mr Berlusconi demanded: "What evidence, what witness statements are there against me? There is not - I repeat, I want to say this strongly - a piece of evidence, an accusation, a document. And there is no motive ... For seven years I, who have institutional responsibilities, have been pelted with mud.

"I wonder how the money of Italians can be spent setting up a trial that is based exclusively on inventions," he said.

Mr Berlusconi, a billionaire media magnate who entered politics in 1992, is accused of bribing judges in the mid-1980s to persuade them to allow his company to buy SME, a state-owned food conglomerate that was up for privatisation. He has always maintained that the charges were cooked up by his political and business enemies.

In his previous appearance before the court, Mr Berlusconi argued that he had tried to buy the company as an act of public service. Yesterday, he claimed that the reason he had had to endure "seven years of mud" was because his old business foe Carlo De Benedetti, whose lower bid for SME Mr Berlusconi's offer was designed to thwart, was an incorrigible liar. "It is the habit of De Benedetti to say what is not the truth," he claimed. "He can say many things but I cannot do the same because of my institutional role."

The new immunity law is being rushed through before Italy assumes the European Union's rotating six-month presidency, in less than two weeks' time.