Italy: Berlusconi in last-ditch senate stand

In THE latest of a series of increasingly desperate gambits before he is set to be voted out of the Italian senate tomorrow, Silvio Berlusconi has claimed he has evidence which will reverse his conviction for tax fraud.
Vladimir Putin meets Pope Francis yesterday on his trip to Rome. Picture: AFP/GettyVladimir Putin meets Pope Francis yesterday on his trip to Rome. Picture: AFP/Getty
Vladimir Putin meets Pope Francis yesterday on his trip to Rome. Picture: AFP/Getty

The three-times Italian prime minister said he had lined up 12 witnesses and key documents that would prove he did not manipulate the purchase of film rights through his media empire’s off-shore companies to dodge taxes.

One of the witnesses, TV producer Frank Agrama, reportedly states in an American affidavit: “Silvio Berlusconi… never took part in the alleged tax-dodge scheme,” Berlusconi said.

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In the letter read aloud to senators from the centre-left Democratic Party and populist Five Star Movement, Berlusconi set aside his typically combative tone and painted himself as a concerned elder statesman, saying he understood their indignation and “authentic love for Italy,” but that freedom itself was at stake.

“I ask you to truly reflect in the intimacy of your conscience… before taking a decision that concerns not just myself but our democracy,” he said. 
The 77-year-old billionaire received a four-year sentence for fraud in August, cut to one year due to an amnesty law, and may be obliged to carry out community service. Thanks to a 2012 law his party backed, Berlusconi’s conviction also means he faces a vote to oust him from parliament, which looks set to be passed this week.

With the vote looming, Berlusconi last month tried to bring down the coalition government led by Enrico Letta, but ministers he had named to the cabinet turned their back on him, forcing him into a humiliating climbdown.

Led by Angelino Alfano, Berlusconi’s former handpicked heir, the rebels then split from Berlusconi, forming a 59-strong new group in parliament which will ensure Mr Letta’s survival. Battling back, Berlusconi told a rally at the weekend he was the victim of “political homicide”, said he would refuse to “clean toilets” and has reportedly made plans for a noisy street demonstration tomorrow. Ignoring a stern warning from Italian president Giorgio Napolitano to tone down his language, Berlusconi said last night the vote was no more than a “coup” to eject him from politics.

Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, has weighed in, comparing Berlusconi to John F Kennedy, while yesterday a loyal MP likened him to “Nelson Mandela” as he fights against the judges he believes are biased against him.

Berlusconi said yesterday he had sent a letter to MPs pleading with them not to vote for his ejection, warning they would assume “a responsibility that will weigh for ever on your lives”.

He promised to produce further documents which would help prove his innocence, without explaining why they had not been published during his trial.

Mr Alfano’s defection marks ­Berlusconi’s first major slip-up in political strategy after 20 years controlling the political agenda in Italy.

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Having assumed Mr ­Alfano’s appointment as deputy prime minister earlier this year would give him power inside the government, Berlusconi has now discovered his former protégé is more loyal to the government than to him.

The vote to oust him from parliament combines with further legal woes for Berlusconi. Last week judges outlined why they had handed him seven years for paying an underage prostitute.

They said he may have paid female guests hush money to water down their testimony – suggesting he may face a trial for witness tampering.

With two days to go before the senate vote, rumours spread this week in Rome that Berlusconi might be handed a diplomatic Russian passport, to avoid any further prosecution, by his old friend Vladimir Putin, who was due to dine with him in Rome last night.