ROME – Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Thursday he will go on TV and appear in courtrooms to prove that corruption and tax fraud charges in two trials against him are false.
The proceedings in Milan are to resume after a top Italian court overturned a law granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while in office. However, the main trial will have to start anew, lawyers said, making it unlikely that a verdict might be reached before the statute of limitations kicks in.
Still, the ruling by the Constitutional Court on Wednesday dealt a significant blow to the Italian leader, prompting a furious reaction by Berlusconi, who said the decision by a widely respected court was politically motivated.
The premier is already engulfed in a headline-grabbing sex scandal over his purported dalliances with young women. Last weekend tens of thousands took to the streets of Rome against his alleged attempts to curb freedom of the press. Then a court in Milan ordered his holding company Fininvest to pay a devastating $1 billion to a rival for a case dating from the 1990s.
Berlusconi sounded defiant over the two trials set to resume in Milan.
"These two trials are laughable, they are a farce which I will illustrate to Italians also by going on TV," he said. "I will defend myself in the courtrooms and ridicule my accusers, showing all Italians ... the stuff I am made of."
Berlusconi has already ruled out stepping down, and his conservative allies, who have a comfortable majority in parliament, have rallied to his support.
"We'll continue to govern without this law," the ever-combative premier said on state radio. He added that he felt "absolutely necessary and indispensable to the democracy, freedom and well-being of this country."
Berlusconi, 73, is still widely popular in Italy, despite accusations from his wife that he has had inappropriate relationships with far younger women and allegations from a self-described call girl that he spent a night with her. The scandal erupted in the spring after his wife announced she was divorcing him.
Berlusconi says he is "no saint" but has denied ever paying anyone for sex or having any improper relationships.
The immunity law spared the country's four top office holders — the premier, president and two parliament speakers — from prosecution while in office. It had been pushed through by Berlusconi's coalition in 2008 when the premier faced separate trials in Milan for corruption and tax fraud tied to his Mediaset broadcasting empire.
The proceedings against Berlusconi, who denies all charges, were suspended as a result of the law, drawing accusations that it was tailor-made for the premier. Berlusconi has a history of legal troubles stemming from his private interests and he has been either acquitted or cleared because the statute of limitations had expired.
But the Constitutional Court's ruling said the immunity legislation violated the principle that all are equal before the law, paving the way for the trials to resume.
The corruption trial is especially sensitive, because in the meantime the premier's co-defendant, British lawyer David Mills, has been convicted of accepting a bribe to lie in court to protect Berlusconi.
Berlusconi was accused of ordering the 1997 payment of at least $600,000 to Mills in exchange for the lawyer's false testimony at two hearings in other corruption cases in the 1990s.
The immunity law froze Berlusconi's portion of the trial when the judges were close to reaching a verdict. In February, Mills was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison. Mills, the estranged husband of Britain's Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell, has maintained his innocence.
Berlusconi's portion of the trial must take place before a new panel of judges. But it will not pick up where it left off because his defense will demand that it begin anew with the presentation of evidence and witnesses, lawyers said.
"To be valid, evidence must be presented in front of the judge," Piero Longo, one of the premier's lawyers, told The Associated Press by telephone. "Why should we agree to continue with things that were admitted by other judges?"
Even if convicted, Berlusconi could stay in power as sentences in Italy are usually not served until all avenues of appeal are exhausted. And in the meantime, the statute of limitations may kick in.
As for Mills, his appeal is set to begin Friday, Italian news reports said. Speaking to Italy's Sky TV, Mills said his lawyers would call Berlusconi as a witness.
"The trial judges didn't allow our lawyers to call him," Mill said. "Clearly, if he had been allowed to testify he would have said that he didn't make any illegal payments."
Berlusconi faces the tax fraud charge in a separate trial over Mediaset's purchase of TV rights. Longo said that trial will continue from where it left off since it had been completely suspended. The statute of limitations in the case expires in 2014, he said.
A few days ago, Berlusconi suffered another setback when a separate court ordered Fininvest to pay $1 billion to a rival for its 1990s takeover of the Mondadori publishing house. Fininvest said Wednesday the ruling was unjust and it will seek to suspend the judgment pending an appeal.
The civil damage award stems from a case in which three Berlusconi associates were convicted of corrupting a judge so he would overturn a ruling that had gone in favor of industrialist Carlo De Benedetti and against Berlusconi for control of Mondadori.