Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who is standing for election this month, has told a television audience that paying bribes to win big contracts is an acceptable part of international business.
The three-time prime minister (right) and billionaire dismissed as "facile moralism" criticism aimed at executives at the Italian defence giant Finmeccanica, who are accused of making illegal payments to win helicopter deals with India.
His comments came just before the Indian government confirmed it had put on hold a €560m contract to buy helicopters from Finmeccanica as a result of the allegations.
The Indian Defence Ministry has begun its own investigation after the Italian company's chief executive, Giuseppe Orsi, was arrested in Milan on Tuesday and charged with bribery.
Despite a conviction for tax fraud in October that relates to overseas slush funds held by his media empire, Mr Berlusconi (75) is leading a right-wing alliance in the general election.
"If you practise this moralism you can't be a businessman at the international level," he told a TV interviewer. "These bribes are a phenomenon that exist – you can't ignore the necessity if you need to deal with countries in the Third World or certain regimes, and India is a country outside the first world."
His political enemies immediately seized upon the remarks. His former ally Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of Italy's lower house of parliament, said Mr Berlusconi had "confessed".
"To say that it may be necessary to pay a bribe means being ready to corrupt in order to reach an objective. Who knows if he was referring to himself?" he told Ansa news agency.
But yesterday morning, Mr Berlusconi sought to distance himself from his own off-the-cuff remarks. "These are a crime and must be avoided," he said. (© Independent News Service)