Showdown in Berlusconi case may become farce

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The Independent Online

After an investigation lasting years and the scrutiny of 15,000 pages of documents, the showdown in the case of David Mills and Silvio Berlusconi is approaching.

However, those expecting a brisk trot through the courts followed by a speedy verdict and sentence will be disappointed. That is not the way things are done in Italy.

Tuesday is the deadline for evidence to reach the office of the prosecutors in Milan. It is also the deadline for the defence to lodge any objections to the proposed prosecution. They may also demand that defendants be re-interviewed, which would push the deadline back further.

But, supposing that does not happen, the judge will some time this week, probably on Wednesday, begin considering whether the prosecutors have a strong enough case to put Mr Mills and Mr Berlusconi on trial. He must make his decision within 30 days. But then the farcical part begins.

The new trial must find its place in a legal calendar that is already packed with appointments. It is like trying to find a parking place in central Milan. At the best there are likely to be two or three hearings per week, once the preliminary hearings have been disposed of. The trial will stretch for many months.

Another curiosity of the Italian system is that the defendant has no obligation to show his face. Mr Berlusconi has made only a handful of appearances at his numerous trials.

Thanks to new rules set by Mr Berlusconi's government, the trial must be completed within 10 years of the crime, probably July 2007.

But that means not just the first trial but two subsequent appeals. In Italy, a verdict is not valid until confirmed by the court of cassation, the court of final appeal. Few believe there is any chance of this case reaching a conclusion within that time.