Berlusconi allies ramping up responses to legal woes

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Silvio Berlusconi's response to charges that he abused power and paid for sex with a minor began Thursday by blasting the Italian judiciary for failing to be impartial and threatening to appeal his case to the European Court of Human Rights.


Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi [] 

Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, was charged on Wednesday in connection to his alleged relationship with a Moroccan cabaret dancer who goes by the stage name Ruby.

Cristina di Censo, the judge in the case, is expected to announce Monday or Tuesday whether she believes the case has merit.

But Berlusconi, who has maintained his innocence in the case, is not waiting for the official word to take action.

Italy's judicial system came under fire from Berlusconi allies Thursday, with complaints that the constitutional court that struck down key parts of an immunity law that would have protected Berlusconi from the latest round of attacks was politically motivated with its decisions.

Other Berlusconi backers said that it would be impossible for Berlusconi to receive a fair trial regarding the latest charges because of a lack of impartiality in the courts.

The complaints were enough that Ugo de Siervo, the head of the constitutional court on Thursday called for an end to what he called "offensive" attacks on the judiciary's impartiality. "This only denigrates the court," de Siervo said.

At the same time, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, a former European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, alleged privacy violations by prosecutors and said that would be grounds for an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

"There are precedents that allow this course related to privacy violations," Frattini said.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi's lawyers continue to insist that di Censo's Milan courtroom does not have the authority to try a sitting prime minister and that, even if it did, it lacked the jurisdiction given that the alleged wrong doing took place in Rome and on the island of Sardinia, both far from Milan.

If found guilty of the two charges, Berlusconi could face up to 15 years behind bars - up to three for paying a minor for sex ( Ruby, whose real name is Karima el Mahrough, was 17 when she first met the 74-year-old prime minister) and up to 12 years for abusing the power of his office when he lied to law enforcement officials to try to help el Mahrough off the hook when she was arrested for theft.

The latest case is not Berlusconi's only legal problem. He faces three more trials for embezzlement, tax fraud, and influence peddling.

But the case connected to Ruby - prosecutors have asked for a fast-track process -- is probably the one most likely to yield an enforceable verdict since it's the newest and the one most likely to yield a verdict before the statute of limitations expires.

Since he first came onto the political scene in 1994, Berlusconi has been charged in at least 17 criminal and civil cases before the latest round but has never been found guilty. Several verdicts were overturned on appeal, and others were thrown out for technical reasons or because the statute of limitations ran out.

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