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Italian leader proclaims innocence

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 6, 2003

ROME - In the first trial of an incumbent Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi stood in court Monday and denied bribery charges, insisting his role in a contested business deal served the best interests of the nation.

"I am proud, I repeat, I am proud of my conduct," the billionaire businessman said, gesturing passionately from behind the defendant's table in a Milan courtroom.

Berlusconi is accused of bribing judges in Rome to sway a ruling on the sale of former state-controlled food company SME in the 1980s, before he was a politician. Berlusconi says the company was about to be sold too cheaply, so he stepped in after pleas from then-Prime Minister Bettino Craxi.

"I had no direct interest and Craxi begged me to intervene because he believed the operation damaged the state," Berlusconi told a packed courtroom during a roughly 45-minute address.

Craxi was among those who fell from power in the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandal that toppled some of Italy's leading politicians a decade ago and revealed widespread corruption. A Berlusconi ally, he died in 2000 in Tunisia, where he was living in self-imposed exile to avoid prison on corruption convictions.

Ultimately, neither Berlusconi nor the other buyer succeeded in buying the food company, which was not sold for eight more years.

Berlusconi gave his testimony as an uninterrupted declaration that, under Italian law, prevented him from being cross-examined.

In Parliament, Berlusconi allies are trying to push through a law that would give the highest-ranking leaders of the Italian government immunity from criminal prosecution while they are in office. Its backers say it is intended to reduce politically motivated prosecutions.

The prime minister has been named in other criminal cases, but previous convictions have been reversed on appeal or annulled because of the statute of limitations. Berlusconi has not been convicted while in office.

Berlusconi was prime minister briefly in 1994 and was elected again in 2001. Early in his current term, Italy's highest criminal appeals court upheld his acquittal in another bribery case.

When Berlusconi left the court Monday, a man approached him and shouted, "You'll end up like Ceausescu!" - a reference to Romania's toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed during the 1989 anticommunist revolt.

The ANSA news agency said the prime minister told police escorts to take down the man's identity. The agency said Berlusconi's office planned to file misdemeanor charges of "verbal abuse" against the man.

Berlusconi's codefendants in the SME case include his former defense minister, Cesare Previti, who was convicted in a similar bribery case last week and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Previti is appealing his conviction.

Berlusconi's allies have criticized European Commission President Romano Prodi for his role in the SME deal. They say Prodi, then chief of the state-controlled holding company IRI that was selling off SME, agreed to a price that was far too low.

Prodi responded Monday by issuing a long reconstruction of the SME case and saying he was not worried about the accusations. "It's not a trial against me," he said.

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