Rome

Berlusconi 'set to request pardon'

But may lose Senate seat anyway

Berlusconi 'set to request pardon'

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, August 14 - Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi looks set to request a presidential pardon for his first definitive criminal conviction as the issue continues to roil relations in Italy's unprecedented left-right coalition government. The premier's lead lawyer said he was "sure" the centre-right leader will ask President Giorgio Napolitano for a pardon on the four-year tax-fraud conviction - cut to one because of an amnesty - that would also strip him of his Senate seat. "The pardon will be requested, sooner or later," said Piero Longo. Longo tried to back-track later, claiming he had not said a pardon requested. But he did admit that it was one of the "likeliest" scenarios as Berlusconi's immediate priority in his long battle against what he claims are leftist magistrates out to drive him from the political field he victoriously entered in 1994. But even if a pardon is granted, Berlusconi could still lose his seat in the upper house of parliament. A presidential pardon will not affect next month's vote on stripping the ex-premier of his Senate seat, the head of the Senate immunity panel said Wednesday. A pardon would cover the remaining one-year term for the crime but not the accompanying six-year ban from office, Dario Stéfano of the leftwing SEL party said. Napolitano has said justice must be served but he would weigh the possibility of a pardon while respecting the independence of the judiciary. The president also stressed Tuesday that Berlusconi would not go to jail but serve the sentence under house arrest or doing community service. He warned of the "dramatic" effect on the ailing Italian economy - struggling with its longest recession in over 20 years - if centre-left Premier Enrico Letta's government falls because of the Berlusconi conviction. Berlusconi backers took the president's statement to mean a pardon was likely but their uneasy coalition partners, Letta's Democratic Party, thought the opposite, that he was saying the three-time premier must respect his first definitive conviction in more than 20 cases including alleged corruption, judge and witness buying and sex with an underage prostitute. With or without a pardon, media magnate Berlusconi is set to revamp his People of Freedom (PdL) party under its original banner, Forza Italia. His daughter and business heir Marina on Tuesday ruled out taking up her father's political mantle in the face of persistent speculation to the contrary. Meanwhile the PdL and PD continued to parse Napolitano's Tuesday statement for ingredients to back their opposing arguments. Napolitano's statement that he would consider if it was possible to pardon Berlusconi met with very conflicting interpretations. The two strange bedfellows making up Italy's fragile coalition government, long-time foes PD and PdL, highlighted different passages of the president's statement. PD lawmakers noted the president had stressed that all convictions must be implemented while the ex-premier's allies welcomed Napolitano's opening to the possibility of a pardon. "It looks to me like President Napolitano repeated a concept that should have been obvious for weeks - that Italy is a state of law and convictions upheld on appeal must be respected and implemented", said the PD's Deputy Economy Minister Stefano Fassina in an interview published Wednesday by Turin daily La Stampa. PD Senate whip Luigi Zanda also noted that Napolitano had stressed that any decision would have to respect the division of powers. "The statement cites the limits and characteristics of powers attributed to the head of state", said Zanda. Pdl lawmakers on the other hand welcomed Napolitano's opening after demanding over the past week that Berlusconi be pardoned on the grounds that he has long been the victim of malicious prosecution and threatening to bring down Italy's unprecedented left-right coalition government over the issue. Napolitano's statement, said leading PdL member Stefania Prestigiacomo, "has been a first acknowledgement that the situation is difficult and a solution must be found. "There are almost 10 million Italians who would otherwise be robbed of their political representation. "The issue of Berlusconi's political presence is real. Napolitano's opening is very important". Anti-establishment leader Beppe Grillo, who came a c lose third to the PD and PdL-led coalitions in February's inconclusive general election said Napolitano ought to quit after countenancing the possibility of a pardon and allegedly breaching the Constitution which decrees equality before the law. "If Berlusconi is saved, the institutions will die," 5-Star Movement (M5S) leader Grillo, echoing an M5S member's call for the president's impeachment for subverting the Constitution if the tax-fraud sentence for inflating film rights is commuted and he escapes ejection from the Senate. "Napolitano will leave the scene in the worst way. My advice is that he should resign now," Grillo said. Napolitano said Tuesday he was weighing if it was possible to pardon Berlusconi while stressing that all convictions must be implemented. He also noted that he had not received a pardon request and that any decision he would make in such an event would have to respect the division of state powers. Napolitano pointed out that Berlusconi, 76, would be eligible to serve his one-year sentence at one of his many residences or doing some form of community service. The Senate is scheduled to vote next month on ejecting the PdL leader whether or not his ban is upheld. The president once more warned against ending Italy's two-month-old emergency reform government, which he helped forge to end two months of political deadlock following February's inconclusive general election amid the country's longest recession in over twenty years. Berlusconi's lawyer Franco Coppi told Corriere della Sera on Wednesday that with his statement the president had indicated that "the issue does not only concern the citizen Silvio Berlusconi but rather the country's equilibrium". He said no decision had yet been made on a pardon request and that "in the end, it will be Berlusconi who will have to choose". "It is certainly a possibility that is being considered", said the attorney. Coppi went on to voice his belief that a pardon request would be forthcoming, "sooner or later".

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