No bias against Berlusconi says court chief

Ex-premier's supporters livid over trial date in fraud case

No bias against Berlusconi says court chief

(By Christopher Livesay) Rome, July 10 - The president of the supreme Cassation Court on Wednesday said that three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi "was not picked on" in the decision to start appeal hearings in a fraud case July 30. "We were not Speedy Gonzales," said Giorgio Santacroce. Supporters from Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom (PdL) party were livid after the Cassation's decision Tuesday to start hearings so soon in a case where the media mogul is appealing a four-year jail term and a five-year ban from office for tax-dodging at Mediaset, a broadcasting company that is part of his family's media empire. His lawyers have called the move "beyond logic," arguing that it does not give them enough time to prepare, while the Cassation insists the case risked timing out under the statute of limitations - something that has happened in a number of Berlusconi's previous legal entanglements. One pro-Berlusconi daily, Il Giornale, called the court "State bandits," echoing the premier's oft-made allegation of left-wing judicial bias. "We are used to language that does not belong in a democracy," said Santacroce. "All are free to express their opinions, but within reason". Just three weeks ago, Berlusconi's supporters upbraided judges in a street rally in Rome after a court in Milan found the 76-year-old guilty of paying for sex with an exotic dancer named Ruby when she was underage and abusing his office to cover it up. He is appealing the seven-year prison sentence and life ban from office. After the rally, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who is also the titular head of the judiciary's self-governing body, the CSM, called for "greater respect" of all branches of the State, which was interpreted as an implicit rebuke of Berlusconi to tone down his rhetoric. Many have worried that the fragile stability of the unprecedented left-right coalition government, which makes strange bedfellows of long-time foes who finished first and second in February's inconclusive general election, was at risk over the legal troubles of Berlusconi, who has threatened to withdraw support over other issues. Members of his party have vowed to resign from government en masse if their leader's ban from office is upheld at the Court of Cassation. In a sign of the lockstep solidarity the party has long prided itself on, the PdL secured a one-day halt to parliamentary business Wednesday to assess the ramifications of Berlusconi's legal challenges and alleged "judicial persecution". But senior party member and Infrastructure Minister Maurizio Lupi assured that the row will not affect the government. "We will continue to do our jobs, and go ahead," Lupi said, adding that the unexpectedly fast court scheduling "does not jeopardise" the PdL's coalition with the center left. But it does threaten "democracy in our country," he claimed.

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