Rome

Napolitano 'regrets' PdL court demo for Berlusconi

President meets ex-premier's party bigwigs

Napolitano 'regrets' PdL court demo for Berlusconi

Rome, March 12 - Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Tuesday told members of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party that he "regretted" their "unprecedented" demonstration Monday inside Milan's court house against an alleged intensification of judicial persecution of their leader. The PdL launched the demo after judges in the ex-premier's trial for allegedly paying for sex with a minor sent doctors to verify if an eye problem for which the premier has been hospitalised justified his not attending the final stage of the closely watched case. After talking to PdL Secretary Angelino Alfano, who on Monday accused prosecutors of "trying to eliminate" his boss, Napolitano issued a statement voicing his "keen regret for the rekindling of tensions between politics and justice...regret, in particular, for what happened yesterday and ended up with a political demonstration without precedent inside Milan's Palace of Justice". The president appealed for "a common and general sense of responsibility" to preserve both "freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary". Napolitano "hopes for an immediate change in the climate that has been created", the statement said. It added that the PdL leaders had recognised that Napolitano, who is titular head of the judiciary's self-governing body, the Supreme Council of Magistrates (CSM), could not take "inappropriate" action undermining the judiciary's freedom. Napolitano called a meeting of the CSM executive council for 18:00 local time Tuesday. After the meeting with Napolitano, Alfano vowed that the PdL would continue to defend their leader from attempts to "eliminate" him. In a joint statement, he and PdL whips Fabrizio Cicchitto and Maurizio Gasparri said "Napolitano listened with great attention to our concerns for the risks that Italian democracy is running". Alfano also praised Napolitano's convening the CSM, telling ANSA on the phone that "it seems an excellent initiative". In the so-called trial, the three-time premier is accused of paying Moroccan nightclub dancer Karima El Mahrough aka Ruby Heartstealer for sex before she turned 18, the legal age for being a prostitute. Both Ruby and Berlusconi say they never had sex. The ex-premier, who has complained during some 30 trials that allegedly leftwing prosecutors and judges are persecuting him, also stands accused of abusing his position as premier to get Ruby released from a police station to avoid a diplomatic incident with Egypt, because he believed she was the niece of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. If convicted on both counts, Berlusconi faces a jail term of 15 years. The centre-right leader and media tycoon is also appealing against a four-year jail term he received last year for fraud in the purchase of TV rights for films. He is currently facing indictment for allegedly paying a centre-left Senator to switch sides in 2006, and is expected to appeal a recent one-year sentence for involvement in the publication of an illegally obtained wiretap which embarrassed a centre-left leader in 2005. Judges on Tuesday granted Berlusconi's plea that his medical condition - the eye infection and high blood pressure stemming from treatment - constituted a "legitimate impediment" to his showing up for the trial. A verdict was expected March 18, upping pressure on the ex-premier in the aftermath of Italy's inconclusive general election, but that date may now be pushed back, court sources said. Berlusconi came narrowly second to the centre left in last month's election but has been blackballed by both centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who faces the tough task of forming a government, and anti-establishment comedian and activist Beppe Grillo, who rode a huge shock protest vote to become the biggest single party in the House and hold the balance of power in the Senate. No party has a majority in the upper house and pundits have widely predicted Democratic Party (PD) leader Bersani's efforts to woo Grillo supporters to attain a confidence vote will fail. One scenario sees another election this summer and the possible replacement of Bersani as PD leader by the much younger, media-savvy and more centrist mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who polls say has a wider appeal.

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