Bribes are part of doing business, says former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi

Political enemies immediately seized upon remarks

Milan

Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who is standing for election this month, has told a television audience that paying bribes to win big contracts is an acceptable part of international business.

The three-time prime minister and billionaire dismissed as “facile moralism” criticism aimed at senior executives at the Italian defence giant Finmeccanica, who are accused of making illegal payments to win helicopter deals with India. His comments came just before the Indian government confirmed it had put on hold a €560m (£480m) contract to buy helicopters from Finmeccanica as a result of the allegations.

The Indian Defence Ministry has begun its own investigation after the Italian company’s chief executive, Giuseppe Orsi, was arrested in Milan on Tuesday and charged with bribery. Mr Orsi formally submitted his resignation as CEO of the company. In his letter to the Finmeccanica board, he denied wrongdoing, saying he always worked “for the exclusive interest of Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries”.

Despite a conviction for tax fraud in October that relates to overseas slush funds held by his media empire, Mr Berlusconi, 75, is currently leading a right-wing alliance in the general election campaign. “If you practise this moralism you can’t be a businessman at the international level,” he told a TV interviewer. “These bribes are a phenomenon that exist – you can’t ignore the necessity if you need to deal with countries in the Third World or certain regimes, and India is a country outside the first world.”

His political enemies immediately seized upon the remarks. His former ally Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of Italy’s lower house of parliament, said Mr Berlusconi had “confessed”. “To say that it may be necessary to pay a bribe means being ready to corrupt in order to reach an objective. Who knows if he was referring to himself?” he told Ansa news agency.

Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, which the polls suggest will win a majority in the lower house later this month, labelled the ex-premier’s views “abnormal” and said “enough of Berlusconi, enough with kickbacks”.

Antonio Ingroia, the anti-mafia magistrate who is leading a small left-wing group in the election, said Mr Berlusconi – who has avoided several convictions for corruption thanks to the statute of limitations – was the “forefather” of a “ruling class that continues to prosper from crime”.

But this morning, as is so often the case, Mr Berlusconi sought to distance himself from his own off-the-cuff remarks. He denied saying companies routinely used bribes as a standard practice to land international contracts. “These are a crime and must be avoided,” he added.

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