Plagued by legal woes since coming to power in 1994 and suffering from declining popularity after the latest scandals, he has fought Italy's magistrates tooth and nail to block all proceedings against him. - Reuters File Photo

MILAN: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi slammed judges as “a cancer of democracy” Monday during his first appearance at a trial for bribery, one of three court cases he is currently facing.

He was speaking during a break in the hearing where he is charged with paying his former British lawyer David Mills $600,000 to give false testimony about his business dealings.

He again laid into the prosecutors in Milan, accusing them of persecuting him for political reasons.

Such magistrates “are the cancer of our democracy, responsible for repeated attempts at subversion”, he said, while praising as “heroes” those judges who rejected prosecutors' accusations.

Berlusconi branded the Mills case “incredible, really surreal,” claiming “there is no motive for corruption, no proof that money was paid, nothing.”

He denied ever knowing Mills, who was found guilty in 2009 of receiving the 416,000 euros and was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison. An appeals court quashed the case in 2010 because had run out of time.

The case was adjourned until May 16, when Renault Formula 1 team boss Flavio Briatore will appear as a witness.

It was the first time that the 74-year-old premier had appeared before the tribunal to answer the claims that he paid Mills to come up with testimony he knew to be false.

Before the hearing a score of supporters of Berlusconi faced off against a similar number of defenders of the magistracy as Italy held its annual commemoration of victims of terror attacks.

Giant photos of two Milan judges and a lawyer were hung outside the courthouse along with a banner expressing thanks to magistrates and police for their actions.

A total of 26 judges and prosecutors were killed during the 1970s when the left-wing Red Brigades and extreme rightists carried out assassinations and bombings, or in later mafia attacks.

As Berlusconi uttered his vituperations, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was leading an emotive ceremony of commemoration in Rome.

The Mills case is one of three pending trials in which Berlusconi is a defendant.

The prime minister is accused of paying for sex with an underage prostitute nicknamed “Ruby the Heart Stealer” and then trying to cover it up through abuse of power.

Berlusconi also faces allegations of fraud in the purchase of television distribution rights bought by Mediatrade-RTI, part of his Mediaset media empire, but it is not yet decided whether the case should go to trial.

The prime minister branded the sex case “a joke” and a “trial by media” Monday, but said he would appear in the dock “if it really happens” to give his version of the facts.

Berlusconi said the Milan judges in the so-called “Rubygate” trial, which is to resume on May 31, did not have the required competence.

The defence team says the court at Monza should hear the prostitution charges because Berlusconi's villa at Arcore where the offences are alleged to have taken place during wild parties lies within their jurisdiction.

In the abuse of power case - where Berlusconi is alleged to have got “Ruby”, real name Karima El Mahroug, off the hook of a theft accusation - the prime minister says he must be tried by a special court.

Berlusconi has faced numerous charges in connection with his political, business or private life but has yet to be definitively convicted on any of them.

Plagued by legal woes since coming to power in 1994 and suffering from declining popularity after the latest scandals, he has fought Italy's magistrates tooth and nail to block all proceedings against him.

Last month the lower house of parliament approved a bill to limit the length of a trial from commencement to verdict to three years, which would effectively wipe out the Mills case.

Updated May 09, 2011 02:05pm

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