Italy's Berlusconi back on trial for tax fraud

Premier Silvio Berlusconi went back on trial Monday for alleged tax fraud, the first of several court cases to resume after Italy's Constitutional Court watered down an immunity bill sparing the premier from trial.

Prosecutors say Berlusconi's Mediaset media empire purchased TV rights for U.S. movies through two offshore companies and falsely declared the costs to reduce its tax bill.

Berlusconi, who wasn't in court Monday, has denied the allegations. The case was immediately adjourned until April 11, when Berlusconi may appear, lawyers said.

The trial had been suspended after parliament passed legislation last year allowing the premier and other government officials to postpone ongoing trials for six months, renewable for up to a total of 18 months, if the defendant has a "legitimate impediment" stemming from being an elected official.

Italy's Constitutional Court weakened the legislation last month, rejecting the automatic and enduring shield from trial the law provided. The court gave judges the power to verify each time the claim to a "legitimate impediment" is made and decide whether the defendant should be exempt from trial.

On Monday, Berlusconi's lawyers didn't claim a legitimate impediment.

On April 6, Berlusconi is set to go on trial on charges he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl then tried to cover it up — the latest indictment to be handed down against the Italian premier and the first that touches on his personal life, not his business interests.

While Berlusconi doesn't have a conflict that day, his lawyer Niccolo Ghedini does: Ghedini is a deputy in the lower chamber of parliament. He said he would ask the tribunal to postpone the start of the trial to a day when there were no parliamentary conflicts.

Two other court cases against Berlusconi are to resume in the coming weeks: one is a corruption case in which Berlusconi is accused of ordering the payment of $600,000 in 1997 to a British lawyer, the other a case still in its preliminary stages that is an offshoot of the Mediaset trial.

Berlusconi, a 74-year-old media mogul-turned politician, contends he has been the victim of left-leaning prosecutors intent on forcing him from office. In past cases, he has either been acquitted or cleared of the charges because the statute of limitations expired. He has always maintained his innocence.

"I'm amazed more than concerned, because having four trials at the same time is truly something beyond normal," Ghedini said after the brief hearing Monday. "Regardless, we've always dealt with them, and we will continue to confront them and we have valid arguments."

Berlusconi referred to his legal woes during an address in Milan to a meeting of business leaders, saying he no longer uses a cell phone because his conversations have been intercepted so often.

"I've gone back in time, hoping not to be overheard," Berlusconi said.

Italian newspapers have been filled with transcripts of prosecutor-ordered wiretaps of phone conversations among girls who attended parties at Berlusconi's villas. The women are purportedly heard describing sex-fueled parties, as well as receiving gifts and money.

Berlusconi's conversations are not featured in the printed transcripts. Prosecutors have said that a handful of wiretaps of phone calls involving Berlusconi will not be part of their case because they were not relevant.

Berlusconi's government has proposed a widely criticized bill that would limit the use of investigative wiretaps and the ability of news outlets to print wiretap transcripts. Italy is one of the world's most wiretapped nations.