Milan: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is expected in court Monday at the latest hearing in a marathon series of tax fraud and sex trials that has overshadowed Italy`s political life for months.
The premier`s legal battles have dominated the political agenda, prompting claims on the government side that he is being unfairly targeted by unscrupulous left-wing judges and counter-claims from the opposition that he has been focusing on the cases to the exclusion of all else.
Monday`s trial, one of a related set of tax fraud cases linked to the billionaire prime minister`s media empire, will be a closed hearing but Berlusconi will be able to speak to reporters outside the Milan courthouse.
His lawyers have said that he expects to be present for the hearing, unless there is a serious political impediment.
At previous trials, he has unleashed blistering attacks on what he says are leftist magistrates bent on destroying him and bringing down the government and he has vowed to curb their powers as part of a reform of the justice system.
Critics say the proposed reforms, which include measures to shorten the statute of limitations on some criminal cases and impose tighter disciplinary measures on magistrates, are designed mainly to help him avoid trial.
In Monday`s hearing, Berlusconi, and a number of others including his son Pier Silvio Berlusconi, are accused of fraud and embezzlement over television rights which prosecutors say were acquired at inflated prices through front companies.
Prosecutors say Berlusconi and his associates were able to skim off millions of dollars which they say then went into secret political slush funds.
He and the other accused deny all the charges.
The so-called Mediaset and Mediatrade fraud trials are not related to the separate "Rubygate" allegations that Berlusconi paid for sex with a teenaged nightclub dancer when she was below the legal age limit of 18.
The trial comes two weeks before local elections across Italy show the accuracy of opinion polls that suggest the ruling center-right has been badly damaged by the cases.
Milan, Berlusconi`s home city where the trial is taking place, is expected to be one of the most closely watched contests as current mayor Letizia Moratti, a former Berlusconi minister seeks to retain control over Italy`s financial capital.