A new trial on corruption charges against former Premier Silvio Berlusconi opened Tuesday, just as the opposition leader is seeking to capitalize on weaknesses in the governing coalition to get back into power.
The trial — one in a series the media mogul has faced for his business dealings in Milan — alleges that Berlusconi in 1997 ordered the payment of at least $600,000 to his co-defendant, British lawyer David Mills, in exchange for the lawyer’s false testimony in two trials against Berlusconi in the 1990s.
Both Berlusconi and Mills — the estranged husband of Britain’s Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell — deny the allegations.
“Berlusconi has nothing to fear from this trial because there is no evidence,” said defense lawyer Nicolo Ghedini. “The only risk is to waste time.”
In Italy, defendants are not required to appear at their trials and neither man was at the session, which was dedicated to procedural matters. If convicted, Mills and Berlusconi could be sentenced to between three and eight years in prison, according to prosecutors.
The charge is not the most serious Berlusconi has faced during years of legal challenges. But it comes at a time when he is trying to present his conservative forces as a viable alternative to Premier Romano Prodi’s fractious coalition, which just narrowly survived a crisis that could have led to fresh elections.
Emboldened by polls showing that the conservatives are leading in popularity, Berlusconi repeatedly called for early elections during and after the recent crisis. However, a new vote — which would be well ahead of its 2011 schedule — appears unlikely at the moment.
Berlusconi is Italy’s richest man with a fortune that Forbes magazine put at $11.8 billion, and at age 70, he has shown little sign of giving up the reins of leading Italy’s conservatives.
Although his leadership has been challenged by some allies, he remains the dominant force. He appears to have recovered after heart surgery in December, shortly after he collapsed during a political rally.
Berlusconi and Mills also are defendants in a separate case charging a dozen people with false accounting, embezzlement and tax fraud in the purchase by Berlusconi’s Mediaset empire of TV rights for U.S. movies. Most of the counts have been dismissed due to the expiration of the statute of limitations, and the remaining counts are set to expire later this year.
Berlusconi has a long history of legal troubles linked to his business interests based in Milan. In past cases, he was either acquitted or cleared of the charges because the statute of limitations had expired. He has always maintained his innocence.