Berlusconi lashes out at 'leftists' as legal cases begin
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, steeped in a prostitution scandal, faces a tax fraud trial on Monday, the first of four court cases that will bring his legal headaches back into the spotlight over coming months.
The case involves the acquisition of television rights by Italy's biggest private broadcaster Mediaset, the crown jewel in the premier's vast business empire, and is resuming after effectively being put on hold for a year.
The prime minister and other Mediaset executives are accused of inflating the price paid to purchase TV rights via offshore companies controlled by Mr Berlusconi and skimming off part of the sums declared to create illegal slush funds.
Two other trials will resume in early March, while a separate case, in which Mr Berlusconi is accused of having paid for sex with an underaged nightclub dancer and then abusing the powers of his office to try to cover up the affair, is due to begin on April 6.
Berlusconi, who is not expected to appear in court on Monday, denies doing anything illegal in any of the cases and says politically motivated leftist magistrates are bent on destroying him.
The trials come as the 74-year-old premier seeks to bolster a parliamentary majority, which was slashed to a handful of votes after a split with longtime ally Gianfranco Fini and his supporters last year.
The break-up with Fini and the premier's mounting judicial problems had led many commentators to predict a government collapse and early elections this spring.
But Berlusconi has managed to lure back several lawmakers from Fini's breakaway movement and appears to have regained the upper hand in parliament, even if just by a few votes.
"The government is doing fine, it has the numbers and will carry on," said Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League and Berlusconi's main coalition ally.
Still, Mr Berlusconi faces a protracted legal battle that will revive juvenile prostitution charges that made headlines around the world and prompted growing calls for his resignation.
"Clearly this puts him in an uncomfortable position, and the pressure will build once the most embarrassing case starts -- the trial over his relations with young women," said Franco Pavoncello, political science professor at John Cabot University.