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Defiant Berlusconi appears in court to fight tax fraud charges

Embattled Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has made a rare court appearance to face tax fraud charges. The premier emerged from the dock accusing magistrates and prosecutors of "working against the country."

Silvio Berlusconi

Berlusconi says magistrates are trying to unseat him

Italy's defiant Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi emerged after a rare appearance in court Monday to fight tax fraud charges, laughing off the allegations and accusing "leftist" magistrates of being out to get him.

Berlusconi entered the courthouse with a crowd of supporters cheering him on, telling reporters, "I will not be convicted." He left the building in similar fashion, remarking on his "surreal morning."

"The prime minister is being accused by prosecutors who are slinging mud at him and at the country at a time when we should be stronger so as to be able to defend the country on the international stage," he told the crowd outside the Milan court.

The trial relates to accusations that Berlusconi's Mediaset broadcasting company used offshore front companies to pay for TV and film rights at above-market prices, allowing it to avoid taxes and divert the difference into slush funds. Berlusconi and Mediaset deny the charges.

Wave of trials

Empowered by a recent court decision to strip Berlusconi of immunity from prosecution, magistrates have brought a host of charges against the prime minister, including bribery, paying for sex with a minor and abusing his position to spring the girl from jail.

Berlusconi accuses the magistrates of abusing the justice system to go after him for political reasons. His government has introduced a set of judicial reforms that would significantly curb the authority of the magistrates, prompting critics to accuse him of trying to circumvent the law.

He commented Monday that the overhaul of Italy's justice system was needed to prevent it becoming "a weapon of political struggle."

While Berlusconi's approval ratings have fallen dramatically in the past year, he appears to have enough support in parliament to finish his term, which ends in 2013. He suffered a significant setback last December when he narrowly survived a no-confidence vote after the break-away of a coalition ally.

Author: Darren Mara, Andrew Bowen (Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Michael Lawton

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