Rome

Berlusconi's lawyers present case for fraud acquittal

Supporters fear conviction, opponents dread backlash

Berlusconi's lawyers present case for fraud acquittal

(By Christopher Livesay) Rome, July 31 - Anxiety over the fate of the Italian government was put on hold one day longer Wednesday as judges at the supreme Cassation Court continued deliberation in the fraud case of Silvio Berlusconi, who risks a prison sentence and a ban from public office, and who many fear may bring down the executive in retaliation. In an attempt to allay such concerns, Italy's transport minister said he did not believe the verdict now expected Thursday would have "repercussions" on the left-right coalition. "This government was born thanks to a sense of responsibility," said Maurizio Lupi, referring to the center-right People of Freedom (PdL) party, his own and Berlusconi's, and the center-left Democratic Party (PD), of Premier Enrico Letta. Since its formation in April, the unprecedented coalition has been perceived as highly volatile for putting natural political enemies under the same tent. Members of Berlusconi's party have threatened to pull their support if their leader's four-year conviction and five-year ban from public office is upheld in a fraud verdict anticipated Thursday, in what would be a definitive ruling on accusations of overseeing a system of manipulating film rights and setting up oversees slush funds to launder money and evade taxes on around seven million euros in 2002 and 2003. Due to an amnesty passed in 2006, Berlusconi would likely only serve one year of the prison term if convicted. But the ban from office would stick if ratified by parliament, which is likely in such cases. Prosecutors have asked that it be reduced to three years in what has been interpreted by some pundits as an olive-branch maneuver to make conviction more likely and a possible backlash less severe. If the PdL leaves the coalition, the government would collapse. "I hope that Berlusconi's sentence isn't upheld, that the sense of responsibility prevails, and that people keep their nerve," said Lupi, evoking the sense of bipartisanship that made the current government possible. "Without these fundamental conditions, the economic crisis will never end". One of the media magnate's staunchest allies said he was nervous as he awaited Cassation's verdict. "Berlusconi is going through this wait with anxiety and worry," Daniela Santanché, an MP for Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party, said on Italian radio. "In part this is because of what his lawyers have told him and in part it is because of what he already knows - that if he were a normal citizen he would certainly have been acquitted". Berlusconi, who is sitting out hearings, denies any wrongdoing and says the case is part of a judicial "persecution" left-wing magistrates have directed at him since the media magnate embarked on a political career 20 years ago. Santanché said that she did not expect the Cassation to overturn the conviction. "This history of the last 20 years makes one think he will be convicted," she said. "A conviction would be a mutilation of democracy". Berlusconi's defence team told the court Wednesday that prosecutors had no proof of his guilt. "An element of proof that Berlusconi may have taken part in the actual crime is lacking in the fabric of the sentence," said Niccolò Ghedini, one of Berlusconi's lawyers. If the Cassation upholds the verdict, it will be the first time Berlusconi, who has been at the centre of many criminal cases since he started his political career two decades ago, has received a definitive conviction.

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