'You must resist, Silvio': Berlusconi faces court

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi returned to court yesterday after an absence of nearly eight years to once again confront his judicial nemeses, as the criminal charges against him mount.

The preliminary hearing at Milan's Palace of Justice, which drew noisy crowds of supporters and protesters, will decide whether the Italian Prime Minister stands trial for tax fraud following an inquiry into the Mediatrade part of his broadcasting empire.

Mr Berlusconi, 74, is accused, along with senior company executives, of exaggerating the cost of Hollywood film rights and diverting the difference to overseas slush funds to avoid tax. The billionaire mogul is already facing charges of tax fraud in a related case, as well as indictments for bribery, paying for sex with a minor and abuse of office in two others.

Earlier in the day, Mr Berlusconi said on his own Mediaset Canale 5 TV channel: "The prosecutors have shown that they want to persecute me and they don't stop even in the face of facts and of ridiculousness."

But the rare appearance underlined the apparent change of strategy by the Prime Minister as he prepares to face the slew of criminal charges.

Mr Berlusconi was forced on to the back foot in January when the Constitutional Court threw out his ministerial immunity from prosecution. And the realisation appears to have sunk in that his puny majority in the lower house makes get-out-of-jail manoeuvres based on constitutional changes practically impossible.

"Everything went well. I'll come back next Monday," Mr Berlusconi told reporters after emerging from the court complex two hours later, with a familiar fixed grin.

But Mr Berlusconi the showman appeared genuinely enraptured by the crowd of cheering supporters. "Resist, you have to resist, Silvio," shouted the largely middle-aged and elderly crowd. The premier sought to climb on to the roof of his car as he lapped up the applause.

His security, no doubt fearing a repeat of the incident in December 2009, when the tycoon was struck in the face with a model of the Duomo di Milano cathedral, stopped him. The Berlusconi supporters that The Independent spoke to denied claims by the premier's opponents that they had been paid to show up.

But minutes earlier, a stout middle-aged woman, Anna Enea, had made a break through the police line to confront Mr Berlusconi's fans. Stopping the No 27 tram in its tracks, she shouted "Vergogna, vergogna!" (shame, shame) in a thick Sicilian accent at a group led by a woman in a fur coat who had just initiated a chorus of the pro-Berlusconi chant: "Thank goodness for Silvio."

"I'm not here with any political party," she said. "I'm here as an ordinary citizen, because I've never seen a disgusting spectacle like the one we've seen from Berlusconi – and I'm from Palermo, and there we have the Mafia."

In another trial Mr Berlusconi stands accused of bribing the British lawyer David Mills with $600,000 to lie under oath. In addition to the possible Mediatrade indictment, Mr Berlusconi is already a defendant in the Mediaset tax trial, in which he is accused of similar tax dodges during an earlier period.

And he is due to stand trial starting on 6 April on charges of having sex for money with a nightclub dancer, Karima El Mahroug, who was 17 at the time. He has also been indicted for abuse of office for seeking to cover up that crime. This offence carries a maximum 12-year sentence.

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