Berlusconi Rallies Supporters, With Defiant Words for Judges and Prosecutors

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BRESCIA, Italy -- A rally in this northern Italian city on Saturday to protest two court rulings against former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- and organized by Mr. Berlusconi's party, one of the partners in Italy's uneasy new government -- became a fresh test of the coalition since it was formed under pressure two weeks ago.

Tensions ran high at the Everyone for Silvio rally, held in the square in front of the city's baroque cathedral. As thousands of Mr. Berlusconi's supporters, mostly from his center-right People of Liberty party, cheered him on, police officers in riot gear held back hundreds of jeering opponents. Insults flew between the sides.

And the presence of center-right ministers from Prime Minister Enrico Letta's new government at the rally put strains on the potentially volatile coalition, made up of parties normally at odds with one another.

Prosecutors and judges "want to eliminate me because for 20 years I have been the only obstacle between the left and power," Mr. Berlusconi said, fighting to be heard above whistles, hoots and enthusiastic applause. His party, he said, will "fight in Parliament to enact a reform of the justice system that cannot wait any longer." But the only magistrates who "need to worry," he added, "are those who use justice for political convenience or to fight a political battle."

Known for his diatribes against the judiciary, which is independent of the government, Mr. Berlusconi was uncharacteristically low-key in his speech on Saturday, mindful of the political implications his words could have. The broad coalition government is an alliance of political adversaries thrust together after national elections in February did not yield a clear winner.

Mr. Berlusconi made a point of saying that he would continue to support the government, but the presence at the rally of top People of Liberty officials at the rally, including Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano, who is also interior minister, was seen by other government leaders as a dangerous step.

"It's not good for the country if institutional figures of the state and our government demonstrate against the justice system," Graziano Delrio, the minister of regional affairs and a member of Mr. Letta's Democratic Party, wrote on his Facebook page. "We have to be an example to young people defending all institutions and the powers of the state in their autonomy."

And it did little to assuage the concerns of the numerous lawmakers in the Democratic Party uneasy about the political pact struck with the center-right and the possible repercussions it could have at the polls.

The Brescia gathering was initially billed as a rally for the mayor,  Adriano Paroli, a People of Liberty member who is facing re-election this month. But last week, Mr. Berlusconi was dealt two setbacks. On Wednesday, an appeals court in Milan upheld a conviction for tax fraud, sentencing him to four years in prison and banning him from holding public office for five years, and on Thursday a court in Naples ruled that he should stand trial on charges of bribing a senator. (He has a final appeal in the first case, and a judge must decide whether there is enough evidence to warrant a trial in the second.)

After the rulings, outraged members of the party shifted the subject of Saturday's demonstration. Mr. Berlusconi said Saturday that the protests against the judiciary went beyond his personal travails. "There are many Italians caught in the infernal meat grinder of the justice system," he said. "I am strong, I have the means to defend myself, I can resist, but what happens when these things happen to an ordinary citizen?"

Mr. Berlusconi, a media mogul, was first investigated in 1989, and since then he has been tried more than a dozen times. But some of his convictions have been overturned or thrown out for lack of evidence by appeals courts, and he has never served jail time.

"In any democratic country," Beppe Grillo, leader of the opposition Five Star Movement, wrote on his popular blog last week, "someone like Berlusconi would be in jail, or unable to hold public office. Here he holds the balance of power for the government."

But to Mr. Berlusconi's supporters, he is merely the victim of a politicized judiciary.

"Let's call him a martyr, targeted by leftist magistrates," said Diego Caviola, a real estate agent from Trento who came to Brescia to show his support. "When it comes to Berlusconi, prosecutors have been probing under any rock they can because they want to eliminate him from politics."

Mr. Berlusconi left the rally on Saturday by admonishing prosecutors, who are part of the judiciary. "You can do anything to me," he said. "But you'll never be able stop me from being the leader of the People of Liberty as long as millions of Italians want me."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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