Wed, May 07, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Italian PM takes witness stand for the first time ever

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ROME

In remarkable scene, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy appeared at his own bribery trial on Monday and said he had entered into the business deal in question because Bettino Craxi, the prime minister at the time, urged him to do so for the good of Italy.

It was the first time that Berlusconi had testified during the proceedings, being held in Milan, and the first time that a sitting Italian prime minister had ever given testimony as a criminal defendant.

It also presaged another possible first: that an Italian prime minister could be found guilty of a major crime while in office. A verdict in the trial could come in the next few months, and a conviction could do Berlusconi significant -- although not necessarily crippling -- political damage.

"The entire situation is extraordinary," said Franco Pavoncello, professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome.

Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, is accused of bribing judges in the mid-1980s to try to influence the sale of a state-controlled food company to him and not to competitors. He has vigorously denied any wrongdoing and said politically motivated prosecutors were trying to ruin him and his allies.

During his roughly 45 minutes of testimony, delivered in a courtroom jammed with reporters, he went further, saying other prominent politicians should also be questioned about the business deal.

He pointed his finger at Romano Prodi, now the president of the European Commission. Prodi, a longtime political enemy of Berlusconi's, ran the Italian holding company in charge of the food company's sale.

Berlusconi said on Monday that Craxi had come to him because Prodi, whose name Berlusconi did not actually mention during his testimony, was going to permit the food company to be sold for too low a price to a buyer that Prodi preferred.

"I had no direct interest, and Craxi begged me to intervene because he believed that the operation damaged the state," Berlusconi said.

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