Crisis looms as defiant Berlusconi launches attack on Italian President

Premier vows to serve out his term despite threat of court battles
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Italy's embattled Prime Minister, his legal immunity removed and threatened with a new spate of criminal cases, yesterday heaped scorn on his detractors and promised to stay in power for another four years.

Silvio Berlusconi, the 73-year-old media mogul, said yesterday that he would "forge ahead" despite the action by the "left-wing judges" of the Constitutional Court in lifting his immunity law. He dismissed the new cases threatening him as "laughable" and made an unprecedented attack on the country's respected head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, for daring to suggest that he should respect the decision of the highest court in the land.

"We know what side the President is on," Mr Berlusconi said. The President's office replied tersely that Mr Napolitano was "on the side of the constitution".

The opposition leader Dario Franceschini said Mr Berlusconi's criticism of the head of state would be "unimaginable in any other country". He foresaw "difficult days ahead," given that the premier would not easily accept the removal of his immunity law.

The Prime Minister could face prosecution in at least three cases, one accusing him of bribing the British lawyer David Mills to lie in court, another of tax fraud and false accounting in the purchase of television rights by his Mediaset group, and another of trying corrupt opposition senators.

The tax evasion charges pose the biggest threat. And it emerged yesterday that Swiss investigators were poised to recommend that charges be pressed against four senior managers in Mr Berlusconi's Mediaset empire. The men are suspected of laundering money linked to overvalued film and television rights deals in Italy.

Associated Press reported that the Swiss investigations could help Italian prosecutors who are now set to revive dormant tax evasion and corruption cases against Mr Berlusconi.

But his most immediate problem could be the embarrassment of an appearance in the witness box in the case of Mills, who in February was found guilty of accepting a $600,000 bribe. Mr Berlusconi had originally been named as the source of the bribe, but his name was removed from the case when his immunity Bill became law.

Milan's public prosecutor, Fabio de Pasquale, said that Mills's defence team was seeking to call Mr Berlusconi to the witness box for his appeal, which is due to begin in Milan today.

Mills, the estranged husband of the Olympics minister, Tess Jowell, was sentenced to four and a half years in jail, but remains at liberty. In Italy jail sentences are not served until all appeal processes have been exhausted.

Mr de Pasquale would not be drawn on how soon Mr Berlusconi himself might be put on trial for his part in the Mills affair. He confirmed, though, that the case would have to start again from scratch with a new judge. Some reports yesterday suggested that it could be at least a couple of months before it begins. Another factor is the statute of limitations, which has often rescued Mr Berlusconi from legal embarrassment in the past.

"The trials aren't going to be enough to force him to resign," said Franco Pavoncello, a professor of political science and president of Rome's John Cabot University. "But his image is damaged and his allies may be tired of worrying about trials rather than running the country."

Professor Pavoncello went on: "We're not going to see a political cataclysm in the next few days or weeks. Instead we'll see more of this continual erosion of public confidence in public offices."