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Italy PM Berlusconi in court for fraud

Mar 28 2011 17:29 Reuters

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Milan - Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, his popularity plummeting as he faces a string of legal cases, appeared in court for the first time in eight years on Monday.

Berlusconi, who faces charges in four separate trials in coming weeks including one for having sex with an underage prostitute, smiled and waved to supporters gathered outside the Milan tribunal as he left the building.

Monday's hearing, over alleged fraud during the acquisition of television broadcasting rights, was closed to the press and public and was adjourned after roughly two hours, until April 4.

"It all went well. I will be there at the next hearing," he told reporters.

The last time the 74-year old billionaire media entrepreneur appeared in court was in June 2003.

The constitutional court lifted Berlusconi's immunity from trial earlier this year, exposing him to three corruption and fraud cases linked to his Mediaset broadcasting empire and a separate trial in which he is accused of having sex with a prostitute who was below the age of consent.

Opinion polls show Berlusconi's popularity has sunk steadily in recent months, hit by splits in his ruling coalition and lurid newspaper accounts of sex scandals.

About 100 of his supporters gathered outside the Milan tribunal, waving flags and banners in defence of the premier.

"These are all moves by the political left to take power even if they do not have enough votes. They don't know how to get him out," a 70-year-old man outside the court said.

A handful of people also turned up to protest against Berlusconi.

"We're here to show that Italy, more than half of it, does not agree with what is going on," said 28-year-old Luca Ragone, who waved a placard addressing Berlusconi with the words: "Welcome Back, they're waiting for you inside."

Prior to the constitutional court ruling in January, the cases had been frozen under a law which allowed the prime minister to claim he was too busy with his official duties to prepare his defence adequately and stand trial.

He and several other people, including his son Pier Silvio Berlusconi, who is deputy chairman of Mediaset, are accused of tax fraud and embezzlement over the acquisition of television rights for inflated prices.

The defendants reject the accusations.

"None of the facts on which the Milan prosecutors have built their case are true," Berlusconi said in a televised telephone interview before the hearing.

When asked if he would attend other hearings as part of a change in his defensive strategy, Berlusconi said, "I will go to those when I can be present... all the trials are absolutely absurd and based on nothing."

A separate trial in which Berlusconi is accused of bribery reopened in Milan last week but the prime minister, who was due to brief the cabinet on the Libya emergency, did not appear in court.

Berlusconi has denied doing anything illegal in any of the cases and says he has been unfairly targeted by politically motivated magistrates who want to bring him down.

The most high profile case, in which the premier is accused of paying for sex with a teenage nightclub dancer named Karima el Mahroug, better known under her stage name Ruby, is due to start on April 6.

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