Silvio Berlusconi Tax Fraud Trial Resumes

Suspended trial is underway again after court stripped out parts of an immunity law.


ROME -- The tax fraud trial involving Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and acquisition rights involving the Mediaset broadcast giant he controls resumed Monday.

The trial will seek to determine whether Berlusconi and other top Mediaset officials inflated the price paid for television rights and then skimmed off parts of the fees to create illegal offshore slush funds. It was suspended a year ago but is now underway again in the wake of a decision from Italy's constitutional court last month to strip out parts of a controversial immunity law that protected him from lawsuits while in office.

The trial is just the latest in a series of legal woes for the scandal-mired Berlusconi: on April 6, a trial will get underway to look into charges that Berlusconi paid an underage prostitute for sex and was guilty of abuses of power in trying to cover up the affair.

Another trial, which will look into charges of embezzlement and influence peddling, will restart next week after being similarly suspended last year because of the immunity law then in force.

Berlusconi did not appear in court on the opening day of hearings in Milan, but without the immunity law to shield him he is likely to be requested to appear to answer charges in one or more of the trials. If that happens, it will mark the first time a sitting Italian prime minister was forced to appear in court to answer criminal or civil charges.

For his part, Berlusconi has denied wrongdoing in any of the cases and has said he is a victim of a vendetta from the country's magistrates.

The prime minister's ongoing legal problems have combined with slow economic growth and the defection of several key allies to erode his nationwide approval levels to near historic lows.

But Berlusconi has remained steadfast: on Sunday he vowed to hold onto power until his term expires in 2013 and he promised a sweeping judicial reform aimed at ousting many of the judges overseeing the cases against him.