ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gave a foretaste of how he may defend himself when he goes back on trial for corruption next month, attacking the judicial system as overrun by “communists” out to destroy him.
“The real Italian anomaly is not Silvio Berlusconi but communist prosecutors and communist judges in Milan who have attacked him again and again since he entered politics and decided to attack the power of the communists,” an angry Berlusconi said on television on Tuesday night.
The comment in a telephone call to the show from his home, was his first public reaction to a ruling by a Milan court hours earlier which upheld a conviction against British lawyer David Mills for accepting a bribe from Berlusconi in 1997.
Mills is appealing that verdict, which one of Berlusconi’s lawyers called “diabolical,” in Italy’s highest court. Berlusconi will be tried separately for his role in that case.
“Is Silvio Berlusconi really the most criminal businessman in the history of the world,” said Berlusconi, who has long accused Italy’s magistrature of being politically biased.
Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-graft magistrate and now an opposition parliamentarian, called on Berlusconi to resign over the Mills verdict and said a national demonstration to demand he step down will be held on December 5.
Magistrate Alfredo Robledo rejected Berlusconi’s use of the term “red robes” to describe judges he says are communists. “If our robes are red, it is because of the blood some have spilled to defend the law,” he said, referring to the killings of magistrates by Red Brigades militants in the 1970s and 1980s.
Berlusconi has been in combative mode since Italy’s top court this month ruled that his protection from prosecution while he holds office violated the constitution. That ruling overturned a law passed by his government which critics denounced as tailor-made to protect him from his legal woes.
A number of corruption trials against the 73-year-old prime minister that had been suspended by the law will now either resume where they left off or start again.
One trial, which involved the acquisition of TV rights by Mediaset, his television empire, is due to resume on November 16.
Prosecutors say Mediaset bought the rights at an inflated price in the 1990s from two offshore companies controlled by Berlusconi, who is accused of tax fraud and false accounting in that case.
Berlusconi, a billionaire who entered politics in 1993 and his now heading his third government, has said he will attend the trials — which he does not have to do under Italian law — and help his lawyers in his own defense.
Under Italian law a defendant is allowed to make so-called “spontaneous declarations” and several times in his appearances at past trials Berlusconi made long, combative speeches on live television.
Berlusconi’s latest legal battles, on the heels of a spate of sexual scandals, coincide with signs his popularity may be slipping.
A poll on Sunday in the Corriere della Sera newspaper showed the approval rating for his government has fallen steadily to 44 percent compared to 54 percent at the start of the year.
But Berlusconi, in his call to the television show, contested these figures, saying his own polls show the government still has a 54 percent approval rating that his own personal popularity rating among Italians is 68 percent.
The tycoon says he has spent 200 million euros ($296.7 million) in legal fees since he entered politics.
Additional reporting by Emilio Parodi in Milan; editing by Robin Pomeroy