Friday, 8 March 2013

ITALY: Silvio Berlusconi's tribulations

March had looked like it would be a month of political revitalization for former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Instead, it is turning out to be a month of trials -- and at least one conviction. On Thursday, a court in Milan sentenced the media mogul to one year in jail on charges of breaching confidentiality for his role in a wiretapping scandal.

Berlusconi is accused of involvement in the illegal publication of a wiretapped conversation conducted by a political opponent in 2005 by the Il Giornale newspaper, which is produced by his brother Paolo Berlusconi.

The telephone conversation had been tapped as part of an investigation into irregularities detected in the takeover of Banca Nazionale di Lavoro (BNL) by insurer Unipol. During the investigation, a conversation between the boss of the insurance company Unipol, Giovanni Consorte, and center-left politician Piero Fassino had been wiretapped. Prosecutors said Berlusconi sought to harm the man seen as his greatest political rival at the time with the publication of the transcript. In Italy, it is not uncommon for such transcripts to find their way into newspapers.

The court also tried and convicted Paolo Berlusconi, sentencing him to two years and three months in jail. The Italian court system allows for multiple appeals before a conviction stands, and neither man is expected to face any jail time -- at least not initially.

Nor will the verdict impact Silvio Berlusconi's ability to participate in talks to form a new Italian government, which are expected to begin on March 20. Berlusconi's center-right political formation is the second-strongest group in parliament following last month's election. But the current trials against him still have the potential to dent his political reputation.

Far more serious for Berlusconi are two other trials making their way through the courts at the moment. In one case, expected to conclude by month's end, he stands accused of paying for sex with an underaged prostitute who went by the name "Ruby the Heartbreaker."
Meanwhile, an appeals decision in a trial relating to television rights for his media company Mediaset may also be handed down this month. In that case, the former prime minister was sentenced to four years in jail in the first instance. Prosecutors are also seeking a five-year ban on public office for Berlusconi.

This month's tribulations are unlikely to be the end of Berlusconi's legal woes, either. Last week, new corruption allegations against Berlusconi surfaced.

Former Senator Sergio De Gregorio declared that he had been bribed by Berlusconi, claiming the politician had paid him a total of €3 million ($3.9 million) in 2006, a charge prosecutors in Naples are now investigating. With the payment, Berlusconi allegedly convinced De Gregorio to become a member of his People of Freedom (PdL) party, a move that caused the center-left coalition of then-Prime Minister Romano Prodi to collapse at the time.

Berlusconi has long maintained that the various cases brought against him -- ranging from fraud and corruption to bribery -- are vendettas brought on by prosecutors.

One thing we can all be sure is that Berlusconi has always found his ways out of troubles. Berlusconi's political life does not smell roses with this conviction, however it remains to be seen how Berlusconi will come out of it.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist