'Teflon tycoon' Berlusconi battles back

That Silvio Berlusconi, the Teflon Tycoon, will stop at little to avoid a prison sentence is not in doubt.

But his inventiveness under legal fire has become clearer than ever, with news that a startled George Clooney, the Hollywood star, will be called to the mogul's defence, while Berlusconi supporters in Parliament launch another attempt to undermine the Italian legal system.

The Prime Minister's lawyers want Clooney to tell the imminent trial, in which Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with a minor, that the Premier's notorious soirees were in his words "elegant and sophisticated" events - not orgies involving prostitutes.

The range and sophistication of his strategies to avoid trial have evolved into a masterclass in how to keep your nose clean, even when everyone insists it must be dirty.

The Clooney incident is a case in point. Reports suggest the Hollywood A-lister popped over once from his nearby villa at Lake Como in the hope of tapping into the Berlusconi billions for his Darfur charity. Clooney has not said if it was worth the trip, though he was "very surprised" to hear about his call to the witness box.

Italian TV personalities and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo will also testify to the parties' respectability, as will Equal Opportunities Minister (and former topless model) Mara Carfagna.

The prosecution claims that many of the parties degenerated later on with paid escorts competing in "bunga bunga" lap dances for the chance of even more lucrative one-on-one prime ministerial appointments, in what magistrates have clinically described as "phase three" of the evenings. The origin of bunga bunga is still unclear, although it has been linked to parties held by Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, but it is taken to mean lascivious.

But yesterday other moves were afoot. Even as the Prime Minister's lawyers continued their preparations for the approaching trial, his supporters in the lower chamber were trying to kill it. In the Rubygate case, Berlusconi is also accused of abuse of office, because he called the Milan police and pressured them to release the minor in question, 17-year-old belly dancer Karima "Ruby" el-Mahroug, after her arrest for theft last May. Berlusconi told the police she was the niece of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Berlusconi's MPs argue that because the Prime Minister believed he was acting in the national interest to prevent a diplomatic incident with Egypt, magistrates in Milan should not have jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi's Justice Minister, Angelino Alfano, is pressing ahead with plans to cap trial lengths at two years - a move that would release Berlusconi from one or more of the other awkward trials (on tax evasion and corruption) he faces. Berlusconi, who has been battling Italy's legal system since 1979, makes a lot of noise about always having been acquitted. Many of the charges, however, were dropped because of the statute of limitations. He shook off others by changing the law in his favour.

Since January, when the Constitutional Court threw out his ministerial immunity, Berlusconi has no longer been able to boycott court appearances. Hence a judge deciding on Monday whether to indict him on new tax fraud charges.

- INDEPENDENT

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