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Berlusconi on balance

JUST Response interviews Domenico Pacitti

JUST Response: Italy’s controversial media mogul premier Silvio Berlusconi has had a whole series of criminal accusations against him. Could you summarise them for us?

Domenico Pacitti: There have been 13 criminal cases against Berlusconi so far. Some of these had multiple charges, most of them have now been concluded and all of them are pretty remarkable, even for an Italian prime minister. Let me just give you the list: bribing policemen and judges, false accounting, tax fraud, illicitly financing political parties, purchasing property illegally, violating antitrust laws, money laundering and Mafia involvement. He was also accused of perjury. That was for denying his membership of the P2 masonic lodge, an anti-Communist organisation that used Italy’s security services for political purposes. Well, perhaps the most perplexing of these accusations – and this really hasn’t received proper attention – was Berlusconi’s alleged complicity in 2 car bombings back in 1992. Those were the ones that killed anti-Mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino together with their police escorts. Berlusconi was also implicated in a series of 5 car bombings that shook Milan, Florence and Rome in ’93. Now, all of these bombings have been officially attributed to the Mafia. But who exactly the instigators were is, as far as I can see, still very much an open question. So those are the criminal accusations.

JUST Response: Was Berlusconi actually found guilty and sentenced on any of these charges?

Pacitti: He picked up an initial total of 77 months from 3 of these cases. Sixteen months were dropped after he won an appeal. And the remaining 61 months were eventually annulled by Italy’s statutory law of time limitations. This is a law which causes criminal liability to expire after a set period, usually 10 years. Eight more cases were similarly annulled as a result of time expiries and also as a result of amnesties –  another way of helping Italian politicians to evade the law. There are just 2 charges on which Berlusconi has been found technically not guilty. One was for bribing financial police and another was for false accounts.

JUST Response: What exactly happened in the case of the charges against Berlusconi for his alleged involvement in the car bombings?

Pacitti: Basically what happened was that the public prosecutors in Caltanissetta and Florence who were investigating Berlusconi's involvement in those killings failed to conclude their investigations within the allotted time and were thus forced to drop the cases.

JUST Response: New legislation is reported to have been introduced in Italy purely in order to favour Berlusconi. Is that right?

Pacitti: Three new laws appear to have been purposely built just to let him off the hook. The first was passed in April of last year and what it did was to decriminalise the offence of false accounting for private companies. An investigating magistrate in Milan has referred this to the European Court of Justice on the grounds that it’s incompatible with EU law. The second was the “legitimate suspicion” law as it’s known and it was passed last November. Now, this law allows an accused party to request the transfer of his case to another court on the ground of suspicion relating to a judge’s impartiality. The reasoning behind this one is that time lost in such procedures would almost certainly render the charges, again, subject to the statute of time limitations. And finally, criminal proceedings against Berlusconi for bribing judges in a 1986 court case have now been suspended thanks to a new law passed in June of this year which reintroduces immunity – not to say impunity – for Italy’s five most senior public officials during their terms in office. All of these cases plus 1600 court hearings are said to have cost Berlusconi and his companies about 260 million euros in legal fees.

JUST Response: Much Italian and international attention has focused on Berlusconi’s persistent claim that the judiciary has been persecuting him with false accusations. How do you see this issue?

Pacitti: Quite frankly, there’s so much institutional corruption in Italy that it’s not always easy to discern clearly. While it’s true that Italian magistrates qua Italians are also excessively susceptible to corruption and can be pretty erratic, the sort of team effort that would have been necessary to invent such a vast assortment of accusations against Berlusconi in different courts up and down the country would – together with a number of other factors – make the sort of persecution Berlusconi is complaining about extremely unlikely. In fact, given the high number of bribery accusations against Berlusconi, given his enormous wealth and given Italy’s culture of corruption, well if we’re allowed to talk about “legitimate suspicion”, it might not be too illegitimate to suspect that some bribes to magistrates might well have been accepted and may have contributed to prolonging his cases up to their legal expiry and ditching others altogether. Added to this, Italian ministries are known to place tribunals under a good deal of pressure to close or drop awkward cases on political grounds, and I can see no reason why this shouldn’t also have occurred here. In fact it would be rather odd if it hadn’t.

JUST Response: That's certainly the way it looks. But is there any conclusive confirmation?

Pacitti: Well, the distinct possibility that Berlusconi may have been using loopholes in Italy’s labyrinth of laws as the only way of escaping conviction in a whole string of cases would appear to be confirmed by a recent United Nations report. It was published on 31st January this year and takes a dim view of Berlusconi’s behaviour. I have it right here in front of me. Let me just give you a couple of quotes. It states: “It is not proper for the Prime Minister, being the chief executive of the Government, to be seen as taking advantage of procedural weaknesses in the system of which all have been calling for reform, including the Council of Europe.” The report questions the great speed with which the “legitimate suspicion” law was passed by the Italian parliament. It also states that the rapporteur “was satisfied that there was reasonable cause for the magistrates to feel that their independence was threatened.” It goes on to criticise Berlusconi’s failure to testify and expresses regret that he declined to meet UN rapporteur Cumaraswamy during his two fact-finding missions to Italy last year.

JUST Response: So how is Berlusconi managing to get away with this in Italy?

Pacitti: Look. The first thing you have to understand here is that Italians are not shocked by corrupt politicians. They regard this as fairly normal in a country that’s always been steeped in corruption. Not unreasonably, they see Berlusconi as basically no more corrupt than the rest of Italy’s politicians, simply more spectacularly so. They also see him as a proven winner whose final challenge is to do a good job for Italy. Compatibly with this they interpret foreign media attempts to discredit him as ultimately aimed at removing a man who threatens to raise Italian economic and political prestige more than foreigners would like. And secondly, there’s the media control factor. Berlusconi knows the media business inside out, better than anyone else in Italy. So, for example, when he strategically sacked three key journalists, the rest fell predictably into line in the usual servile way. 

JUST Response: I take it the three journalists you're referring to are Enzo Biagi, Michele Santoro and Daniele Luttazzi?

Pacitti: Yes. As you know, they had the unpardonable audacity to express views that were seriously at variance with the official government line. Getting back to your question about how he's getting away with all of this, Italians know perfectly well that Berlusconi owns the country’s 3 biggest private TV channels and that as prime minister he also has control of the three state channels. And they’re not worried about that either – just as long as they’re continuing to be fed the sort of TV entertainment they’re looking for. But they’re largely unaware of the systematic filtering of information on news programmes or further restriction of scope of discussion on talk shows. So here we have Italy’s prime minister heading the European presidency until the end of the year, openly snubbing his nose at the law and giving Europeans their first Italian lesson on how to avoid prosecution on criminal charges that are normally associated with Mafia gangsters. I think it’s just scandalous, though hardly surprising, that Italians are not out there in the streets protesting – not even the political opposition who have obviously, as is customary in Italy, struck a friendly deal over alternate terms of government and goodness knows what else. So much for Italian democracy.

JUST Response: Do you think Berlusconi has any positive qualities?

Pacitti: His chief positive quality is that he has so far shown himself to be far more capable of governing Italy than any of his Italian politcal colleagues on the left or right. This observation should of course be perceived from within the accepted conventional paradigm of what constitutes good government in a western imperialist context.

JUST Response: So what exactly has Berlusconi done that is positive?

Pacitti: Well, for example, his foreign policy over the US-UK invasion of Iraq was understandably perceived by Italians to be a highly commendable piece of tightrope walking that allowed Italy to cut an honourable figure internationally. Italians see in Berlusconi a premier who is at last respected by his foreign counterparts. Berlusconi has also introduced a number of commonsense measures no doubt designed to increase his popularity that are having a positive impact on many Italians. For example, the local policeman has been brought back on the beat, giving city dwellers a much needed sense of security. His introduction of a new points system for car licenses which comes down heavily on driving offences is reported to have reduced road deaths by twenty per cent over the past months compared with last year.  His latest proposal to raise the retirement age by five years is already seen by many as a sensible step in the right direction of reducing increasing debt caused by overgenerous pensions. These and other measures such as restricting cigarette smoking in public places and raising minimum retirement pensions have done a fair amount to give Italians the welcome sensation that this prime minister actually wants to do something positive for ordinary people and that he has established a closer contact with them than most of his predecessors.

JUST Response: And do you think this makes up for Berlusconi's apparent moral and criminal shortcomings?

Pacitti: Of course it doesn't. It is only natural for anyone who believes in truth and justice as absolute values to think of their ideal political leader as morally upright and untouched by corruption or criminality. The question is: how realistic is it to expect a political leader to act morally and truthfully? Is George W. Bush any less of a criminal than Berlusconi? Or is Tony Blair? What about Ariel Sharon or Hu Jintao and others? How many honest premiers and presidents are there in the world today? Could there ever be such a thing as a truly honest political leader in the modern world? Or is the term "honest political leader" simply a convenient formula that happens to be a contradiction in terms? That's certainly something worth thinking about.

Note: This interview appeared in JUST Response on August 26 2003.