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Judge sparks furore with Berlusconi-verdict interview


(By Paul Virgo)
Rome, August 6 - An interview with a supreme court
judge on last week's decision to uphold a tax-fraud verdict
against Silvio Berlusconi has stirred a huge furore, with one of
the ex-premier's lawyers saying it casts doubt on the legitimacy
of the decision.
Sources at the supreme Court of Cassation, however, said
that nothing can change the four-year jail sentence for
Berlusconi - three of which have been commuted because of an
amnesty - as it is now definitive.
Judge Antonio Esposito spoke about the case - regarding a
system of inflated film-rights purchases at Berlusconi's
Mediaset media empire and the use of offshore companies to
create slush and dodge taxes - in an interview with Naples-based
daily Il Mattino.
It is a highly unusual move as a court usually only
comments on its sentences in a written explanation generally
published over a month after the verdict is announced.
In the interview published Tuesday, Esposito denied claims
there was no evidence Berlusconi knew of the fraud and was
convicted on the basis of the logic that, as the head of
Mediaset, he "could not have not known" about the wrongdoing.
"No, you were made aware of what was happening," Esposito,
who was the head of the five-judge Cassation panel that made the
tax-fraud ruling, was quoted as saying by the newspaper.
However, Esposito said he was misquoted by Il Mattino,
which also quoted him as saying "Berlusconi was convicted
because he knew, not because he couldn't not know", although the
editor said he has proof the material was correct.
The interview prompted a hail of indignation from
Berlusconi's supporters.
"This is obviously very serious and unprecedented," said
Niccolò Ghedini, one of Berlusconi's lawyers and an MP for the
ex-premier's People of Freedom (PdL) party.
"The competent bodies must urgently verify what happened,
which cannot not have concrete effects for the evaluation of
that sentence".
But the Cassation sources said the interview "does not
invalidate, nor change, the decision on the Mediaset trial",
adding that the verdict was passed by a panel of judges, not
just one member of it.
Nevertheless, Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri
requested clarification from the supreme court over the
interview, Cassation President Giorgio Santacroce told ANSA.
Santacroce added that Esposito was "inopportune".
Three non-magistrate members of the judiciary's
self-governing body, the CSM, called on it to open disciplinary
proceedings over the case.
"A panel of judges should speak with legal documents i.e.
the explanation of the sentence," said Bartolomeo Romano, one of
the three.
Rodolfo Sabelli, the head of judges union ANM, said the
interview would have no effect on the tax-fraud ruling.
He also said Esposito was not in danger of sanctions, while
stressing that "it is opportune for magistrates handling a trial
to abstain from making comments on them, especially when they
are particularly high profile".
Some Berlusconi supporters said something so unusual could
only happen in a case involving the three-time premier, adding
that this gave grounds to their assertion that he is the victim
of persecution from politically motivated left-wing elements in
the judiciary.
Berlusconi has been at the centre of over two dozen
criminal cases since he entered politics two decades ago, but
last week's was the first definitive verdict against him.
The PdL whips in parliament, Renato Schifani and Renato
Brunetta, said in a statement that the episode showed the
party's calls for justice reforms had to be satisfied.

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