The 20,000 members of a Facebook group called "Let's Kill Berlusconi" face an investigation after Rome magistrates said that the group could prompt an assassination attempt against the Italian Prime Minister.
But new members were continuing to join the group (Uccidiamo Berlusconi in Italian) yesterday after prosecutor Nello Rossi announced the move, following government pressure for action against the Facebook users.
Angelino Alfano, the Justice minister, said: "I'm waiting for the magistrates to do their duty and investigate, pursue and find the ones, who by encouraging hatred and murder against Silvio Berlusconi, are committing a punishable offence."
A third of the group's members have joined in the past 48 hours after criticism by the Berlusconi family newspaper Il Giornale raised its profile. Nonetheless, ministers said they were alarmed that some members of Uccidiamo Berlusconi (whose logo is inset right), listed in Facebook's "just for fun" section, said they were willing to kill the Prime Minister.
One member calling himself Vieri Davidov Kuratowski said: "I'm available to actually do the deed. But I wouldn't mind a bit of company inside." Another called Enrico Transenni said: "I saw this group and joined gladly... [he should] die, burnt alive in public."
In most of the posted comments the irony is more obvious. Alain Nardese wrote: "Arrest us all. We're all vile, evil communists!"
But that hasn't stopped the Interior minister Roberto Maroni from pledging to shut down the group and publicly denounce its participants. "I don't think that there's a country in the world in which someone would be able to write on a website 'Let's kill the Prime Minister'," he told Corriere della Sera. "It would be a good thing if this demonisation of political adversaries stopped. I'm extremely concerned there's a risk things could get out of control."
Some observers have noted that Mr Berlusconi himself has added to the political tension in Italy with his vituperative attacks on the country's judges, whom he has labelled a seditious, left-wing cabal.
The investigation into the Facebook group comes just days after it emerged that a threatening letter calling for Mr Berlusconi to resign and "face justice" was sent to a left-wing newspaper.
However, even the Prime Minister's political opponents condemned the Facebook group. Democratic Party leader Dario Franceschini described it as "demented".
The Rome prosecutors office told La Repubblica newspaper that it had asked the Californian owners of Facebook to remove the group. It added: "We are following all the subtle and complex pieces of information to identify who wrote the messages."
On hearing the critical comments, one member of Uccidiamo Berlusconi, wrote: "Guys, if they try to close the group down, I propose we open another identical one." Two other groups with the same name have already sprung up.
The Italian papers yesterday suggested that the inspiration for the site may have come from last year's satirical film Shooting Silvio. Broadcast in Easter this year by the Sky Italia channel of Mr Berlusconi's bitter rival Rupert Murdoch, the critically panned film depicts a man's plan to rid Italy of Mr Berlusconi with a bullet. Mr Berlusconi's supporters said then that airing the film was "an incitement to violence".
'We are not at your disposal, Prime Minister'
More than 100,000 women have signed a petition saying they are fed up with the chauvinist gags, starlet-fixation and generally unreconstructed behaviour Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi shows towards the opposite sex.
A startlingly rude remark directed at a female political opponent earlier this month appears to have been the catalyst for a grassroots rebellion against the playboy premier. Mr Berlusconi called Rosy Bindi, a bespectacled, grey-haired 58-year-old MP, "more beautiful than she was intelligent".
Her sharp retort, that she was "a woman who is not at your disposal", became the rallying cry for an online petition created by a group of feminist intellectuals and promoted by the newspaper La Repubblica. Now photos of women declaring their distaste for the prime minister are pouring in, many inscribed with the phrase: "not at your disposal".
Nor is that the only attack to have been suffered by Mr Berlusconi. After his attack on Ms Bindi, he was hit with a memorable epithet from her colleague Giovanna Melandri. The diminutive prime minister, she said, had shown himself to be "taller than he is well-mannered".