Silvio Berlusconi May Have to Appear in Court to Defend Himself

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Italy's highest court has stripped out key elements from the immunity law that protected Italian media tycoon and Prime Minister.


ROME -- Less than 24 hours after Italy's highest court stripped out key elements from the 18-month-old immunity law that protected Italian media tycoon and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from appearing in court in his own defense, a judge said the 74-year-old billionaire would have to do just that.

On Thursday Jan. 13, the 15-member constitutional court in Rome said that the part of the controversial immunity law that allowed Berlusconi to determine whether or not he could appear in court without interfering with his work as prime minister was illegal. Instead, the court ruled that individual judges would be required to make that determination regarding the trials under their auspices.

As if on cue, a judge in Milan ruled Friday that Berlusconi will be asked to appear in the trial involving British lawyer David Mills, who was found guilty in 2009 of accepting $600,000 in bribes from Berlusconi in return for lying under oath in connection with acquisitions for Berlusconi-controlled broadcast giant Mediaset, that funneled money into slush funds in Switzerland and Hong Kong in order to avoid tax liability.

Because of the immunity law in effect at the time, Mills was found guilty of accepting the bribe from Berlusconi, but Berlusconi could not be found guilty of paying the bribe.

The judge in a second case alleging influence peddling and corruption will soon decide whether Berlusconi should have to appear in his court to defend himself against those charges.

Berlusconi has denied wrongdoing in both cases, and has repeatedly claimed to be the victim of a vendetta against him by left-wing magistrates. When debate on the legality of the immunity law began, Berlusconi said he was "the most persecuted man in history."

The Italian media said that because the immunity law delayed the hearing on both of those counts for so long, the statute of limitations -- which Berlusconi's government shortened in 2002 -- would likely expire before a ruling can be made.

But a third case could be more damaging. That case, which is related to the case involving Mills, will look into the tax fraud charges stemming from the off-shore slush funds and could implicate Berlusconi and other high level Mediaset officials. Statute of limitations laws are not expected to have an impact on that case, newspapers said.