Rome

Berlusconi row over 'justification' of bribes

'Was he referring to himself?' asks arch-enemy Fini

Berlusconi row over 'justification' of bribes

Rome, February 14 - Italian ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi sparked a pre-election flap Thursday by saying criticism of bribes such as those suspected in a major helicopter deal by Italian defence and aerospace giant Finmeccanica's AugustaWestland unit with India amounted to ''facile moralism''. The Italian political and judicial establishment was unanimous in condemning Berlusconi's apparent contention that bribes are an inevitable part of doing business in the third world. ''The claim that we should become accustomed to illegality as a situation that is necessary and inevitable, as an ill that we must live with, is unacceptable,'' said Rodolfo Sabelli, chief of the judges and prosecutors' union ANM. ''It is not a question of moralism,'' continued Sabelli. ''There is a provision in the criminal code that also punishes international corruption. And we have been reprimanded by Europe and the whole world for corruption in every form, because it is universally considered to seriously damage the economy and investments''. The vice-president of the judiciary's self-governing body, the Supreme Council of Magistrates (CSM), Michele Vietti, said: "I think all those who have responsibilities should reinforce citizens' respect for institutions and rules", above all at a time when Italy is called to elect leaders expected to enforce those rules. The Democratic Party (Pd), which is leading the centre left in its bid for election victory on February 24 and 25, slammed Berlusconi's comments as ''a justification for bribes''. PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani, Berlusconi's main rival, called the ex-premier's views "abnormal" and said "enough of Berlusconi, enough with kickbacks". Former prosecutor Antonio Ingroia, leading a small leftist coalition, said Berlusconi, who has seen a number of corruption convictions overturned and is currently appealing a film-rights fraud conviction, was "acquitting himself" by implication. Ingroia, a former anti-Mafia investigator, claimed Berlusconi was the "forefather" of a "ruling class that continues to prosper from crime". Berlusconi, who is also on trial for sex with an underaged prostitute and illegally obtaining a wiretap, has long accused allegedly left-wing prosecutors of persecuting him. On Wednesday he said Italy's independent judiciary was "out of control" and had to be reined in, accusing it of "clockwork" probes aimed at the centre right. Vietti denied this claim Thursday, saying "magistrates cannot abstain from doing their jobs during an election campaign". Berlusconi's former ally and now arch-enemy Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Italy's lower house, said Berlusconi had "confessed''. ''To say that it may be necessary to pay a bribe means being ready to corrupt in order to reach an objective. Who knows if he was referring to himself?'' Fini added that Berlusconi was "anthropologically different" from him on justice issues, using a term the ex-premier employed to argue that magistrates had to be different from normal people in order to do their jobs. Even centre-right ally Roberto Maroni, former interior minister and leader of the regionalist Northern League, distanced himself from the comments. ''The system of bribes must be fought everywhere, it is a universal challenge. This is my position of total intransigence concerning this system,'' he said. But the ex-premier and media magnate was defended by a leading member of his People of Freedom (PdL) party, Daniela Santanche'. She said: "I think it much worse for Italians to have a Roma (gypsy) camp than paying for commercial intermediation with India". Santanche' agreed with Berlusconi that such sweeteners were a part of global business practice and happened "in other countries too". On Tuesday Finmeccanica CEO Giuseppe Orsi was arrested in connection to a probe into international corruption relating to the 2010 sale of 12 helicopters to India. New Delhi on Thursday said it had frozen payment on the supply pending the results of investigations. Maroni is suing two newspapers who linked the League, a sponsor of Orsi, to the alleged corruption.

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