Berlusconi claims persecution

ROME: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi claimed Friday to be the most persecuted man anywhere in history at the hands of the courts, after judges quashed his immunity from prosecution.

But he said his centre-right government would carry on with massive public backing and there was no need to organise demonstrations in his favour.

"I am absolutely the person the most persecuted by the judiciary of all times, in all history and of anywhere in the world," he told journalists on emerging from a cabinet meeting.

Berlusconi said he had made more than 2,500 court appearances and spent more than 200 million euros on his defence in the various legal cases against him.

In a typical Berlusconi gaffe, he said the money had gone on paying "consultants and judges", before correcting that to "consultants and lawyers."

Last week a Milan court ordered his media empire Fininvest to pay a record fine of 750 million euros after ruling that it had obtained a favourable legal decision through bribery.

On Wednesday Italy's Constitutional Court dealt Berlusconi a stinging blow by throwing out a law shielding him from prosecution while in office.

The verdict paved the way for two corruption trials to resume against the 73-year-old billionaire media tycoon.

"The persecution is continuing of course," Berlusconi said Friday. "I would never have thought anyway that left-wing judges could approve" the immunity law.

"I will just have to take a few hours off from my work as head of government to deal with the trials."

Calling the trials "a real farce", Berlusconi said, "I will go on television to explain all that and the Italians will understand that the prime minister is a rampart against the left, which is not in the majority in this country."

In a separate statement on the TG5 television channel owned by his Mediaset group, Berlusconi turned down calls from some of his supporters for mass street protests against the Constitutional Court ruling.

"We are in government with the benefit of a popular consensus which has grown," he said, referring to successes in national, European and local elections since April last year.

"It's clear that we have a majority and we will govern for five years."

Berlusconi's battles with the law have marked his public life since he burst on to the political scene in the mid-1990s.

He has faced charges including corruption, tax fraud, false accounting and illegally financing political parties.

Although some initial judgments have gone against him, he has never been definitively convicted.

In the latest cases he is accused of paying his British former tax lawyer, David Mills, 600,000 dollars (400,000 euros) to give false evidence in two trials in the 1990s.

Mills was convicted in February of accepting the payment in a ruling that he is appealing.

Another pending case against Berlusconi involves allegations that his Mediaset television empire overcharged for broadcasting rights.

He has seen his popularity ratings drop in the past few weeks as he is also facing a string of sex scandals.

But asked a month ago by a journalist if he should resign, he declared he was "by far the best prime minister in 150 years of Italian history."