High Noon for Berlusconi and the magistrates judges A 'High Noon' showdown for Berlusconi

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There was a touch of High Noon in the announcement at the weekend that Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, is to stand trial on corruption charges. Starting on 17 January, the Milan criminal courts will be the venue for a final showdown pitting the media magnate- turned-politician against the magistrates whose investigations have derailed and possibly wrecked his ambitions to run the country.

To hear Mr Berlusconi talk, he sees himself as a lone sheriff preparing to do battle with the forces of evil - his argument being that the magistrates have a specific political agenda to destroy him. As far as the magistrates are concerned, they are out to establish not only Mr Berlusconi's guilt or innocence, but their credibility as dispassionate upholders of the law.

One thing is clear: the conflict has become so heated that only one side can hope to come out of the showdown alive. The issue has grown far beyond the basic judicial debate of whether Mr Berlusconi colluded in the bribing of a few tax inspectors in exchange for an easy audit of his Fininvest business empire.

At stake is the soul of Italy as it struggles to throw off the corrupted politics of the past and create a new, healthy democratic system.

Much has changed since Mr Berlusconi rose to power in the general elections of March 1994. At that time the judiciary were considered heroes for sweeping away the old system. But then they turned their guns on the prime minister and the atmosphere quickly turned.

Mr Berlusconi accused the magistrates of trying to block progress and turn the clock back to the dark days of the past. The prime minister's opponents, by contrast, saw Mr Berlusconi as the true counter-revolutionary force, a man who had entered politics not to rescue Italy but his own personal interests.

The magistrates won the first round when the announcement of a formal investigation into Mr Berlusconi last November precipitated the collapse of his government. Round two, though, went to Mr Berlusconi: the most popular of the magistrates, Antonio Di Pietro, resigned for reasons yet to be elucidated and, along with his former colleagues, became the object of a sustained smear campaign. The "Clean Hands" anti-corruption drive, meanwhile, lost momentum.

Round three, the announcement of Mr Berlusconi's trial, has been a close and potentially destabilising contest. On the one hand, Mr Di Pietro has made noises about entering politics and accused the former prime minister of riding roughshod over the country's institutional pillars to further his ambitions.

On the other, Mr Berlusconi has launched a sustained attack on the judiciary.

The next few months promise to be ugly as the country splits into opposing camps and the temperature of debate rises.

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