March 28 (Bloomberg) -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appeared in court for the first time in eight years as prosecutors step up efforts to convict him of corruption after he lost his immunity.
Berlusconi, 74, appeared at the Milan hearing today of a trial in which he’s accused of tax fraud in purchasing film rights for Mediatrade SpA, a unit of his Mediaset SpA company. He denies the allegations and called the trial “ridiculous” and a bid to drive him from office in an interview earlier today on Canale 5, one of his television stations.
“It was a normal hearing,” Berlusconi’s lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, told reporters at the courthouse. The premier “was at ease, didn’t say anything and will return” to the next hearing, scheduled for April 4, he said.
The case is one of four trials that are going ahead against the premier after Italy’s Constitutional Court on Jan. 13 partly overturned a law granting him virtual immunity from prosecution while in office. The first hearing in a trial in which he’s indicted for paying for sex with a minor and abusing his power to cover his tracks is set for April 6.
“I never dealt with TV rights,” he said on Canale 5 today in reference to the Mediatrade case. “After I entered politics in January 1994, I distanced myself from the company that I founded.”
About a hundred police ringed the Milan courthouse and a crowd of Berlusconi supporters was on hand, cheering “Silvio, Silvio” as he left.
“No one is a saint, but these judicial prosecutions against the premier are just trying to get rid of Berlusconi,” said Dino Tonelli, 72, a former television cameraman who was at the courthouse showing his support for Berlusconi.
Berlusconi has said he will attend all hearings held on Mondays. An emergency Cabinet meeting on the Libya crisis on March 21 prevented him from attending a hearing of a trial where stands accused of paying $600,000 to U.K. lawyer David Mills to lie under oath.
Ghedini said at the time that he couldn’t make that appointment due to his political commitments. His last appearance in court was in May 2003, when he rebutted charges that he bribed judges to block the sale of state-owned SME Meridionale SpA, a food company, to rival businessman Carlo De Benedetti. He was acquitted in that case in 2008.
Berlusconi has spent “more than 600 billion Italian lira,” or roughly $430 million, in defending himself and his companies against legal action since entering politics in 1994, he told business leaders in Milan on Feb. 28. He called himself “the biggest legal defendant in the history of the universe.”
Berlusconi, who has been acquitted in eight corruption trials since entering politics in 1994, has repeatedly charged that Italy’s judges are out to destroy him politically.
His popularity dropped to a new low even as his ruling coalition still led the opposition, an opinion poll showed on March 16. The premier had the confidence of 33 percent of Italians, a 2 percentage-point drop from February and the lowest since his re-election in 2008, Rome-based IPR Marketing said in the poll. The premier’s coalition had the support of 42.2 percent of respondents, compared with 41.2 percent for a group of opposition parties, according to the survey.