Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s billionaire prime minister accused of corruption by a panel of judges this week, responded fiercely on Thursday by branding them left-wing “extremists” within a diseased system.
Mr Berlusconi took the stage at the annual assembly of the Confindustria business lobby to attack the judiciary in front of a 2,000-strong audience that included his cabinet ministers, opposition politicians, foreign ambassadors and the cream of Italian industry.
The 72-year-old prime minister had previously declared he would respond to the judges’ allegations in parliament, but resistance from coalition allies apparently led him to choose an alternative forum.
On Tuesday, a panel of three judges in Milan released a lengthy document explaining their decision in February to find David Mills, a UK lawyer, guilty of accepting a $600,000 bribe to give false testimony to protect his clients – Mr Berlusconi and his Fininvest business empire – in the 1990s. Mr Mills has appealed against his four-and-a-half year jail sentence.
The judges’ reasoning concluded that Mr Berlusconi was the source of that payment. Mr Berlusconi had been a co-accused in the case until parliament, controlled by his centre-right majority, passed a law last year giving him immunity from prosecution.
Addressing Confindustria and a phalanx of television cameras, Mr Berlusconi defended his government’s economic record and then burst into a finger-jabbing tirade against the Milan judges.
“I cannot remain quiet about what is happening to me,” he declared. “I cannot accept this.”
He called his accusers “extremist judges of the left”. Having them run the Mills case, he said, was like getting Jose Mourinho, manager of Inter Milan, to referee a match against city rivals AC Milan (owned by Mr Berluconi).
Many in the audience broke into applause several times during his heated outburst. Others looked on grimly and a few walked out.
“Criminal justice is a pathology of our system,” the prime minister said, denying the accusations as “scandalous” and untrue. He then gave a detailed explanation of his side of the case.
Government members have accused the judges of timing the release of their document ahead of next month’s European elections. Hot on the heels of stories about Mr Berlusconi’s personal life following his wife’s decision to divorce, the prime minister has gone on a media offensive.
Opinion polls suggest that the Italian public, which appears little interested in the European elections, has not been moved much by these controversies despite opposition calls for Mr Berlusconi to resign.
The media magnate remains the most popular Italian politician. A majority appears to have long accepted his conflicts of interest. Listeners on Thursday noted the variety of roles he put on show in his speech – first as prime minister, then private entrepreneur, a court defendant, and finally party leader.
Mr Berlusconi said the accusations had strengthened his determination to “reform” the justice system. “The more they hit me, the stronger I get,” he said of the numerous court cases brought against him over more than 20 years.
He personally thanked Angelino Alfano, his justice minister, for organising the immunity legislation.
Emma Marcegaglia, celebrating her first year as head of Confindustria, had earlier given the keynote speech, urging the government to speed up economic reforms.
She also commended Mr Alfano for his judicial reform plans, but an aide said she had not been aware that Mr Berlusconi would use her platform to defend his case. Delegates were also taken aback when Mr Berlusconi began with a joking comparison of Ms Marcegaglia to a television “soubrette”.
Italy’s bar association on Thursday denounced Mr Berlusconi’s personal attacks on the judges as “undermining fundamental constitutional principles”.