Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi defended himself vigorously against prosecutors' charges in a rare appearance in open court on Monday, but the premier was addressing reporters, not the judges.
He was not being called as a witness in his first appearance at his nearly six-year-old tax fraud trial, nor did he request to address the court. Rather, Berlusconi was making good on a pledge to show up in court as often as his duties allow to contest charges of corruption, tax fraud and paying an underage prostitute in four active cases. During his 2 1/2 hours in court, the premier sat silently in the front row next to his lawyer.
Before he left, he told journalists the appearance had been a waste of his time.
"I've spent a surreal morning, a paradoxical waste of time and a waste of resources," Berlusconi told reporters inside before leaving. "There is no proof, no documents, no testimony, no money trail that supports the prosecutor's thesis."
He said magistrates, who he has long contended are politically driven and want to oust him from power, "do not work for the country but against the country."
Berlusconi, who is charged in another case with paying for sex with an underage prostitute, told reporters that he had given money to the Moroccan teenager at the center of the case to keep her from pursuing a life as a prostitute. The teen, Karima el-Mahroug, who was 17 at the time of the alleged encounters with 74-year-old Berlusconi, is better known by her nickname Ruby.
"I gave her money to help take away need, for reasons that are exactly the opposite, so she would not be forced to be a prostitute," Berlusconi told reporters. He called the charges "totally without foundation."
It was the second time he visited the Milan tribunal in two weeks, after showing up for a closed-door preliminary hearing in another tax fraud case last month. In both instances, Berlusconi stopped to greet dozens of supporters and political allies who gathered outside.
On Monday, admirers erected a stage festooned with oversized-balloons saying "Silvio, resist," a slogan notable both for the familiarity with which supporters address the premier and for the use of a term evoked throughout Italian history by patriots fighting those who occupied the country.
Berlusconi looked relaxed as he smiled and shook hands with lawyers as he entered the courtroom. He showed his combative side in remarks to reporters before the hearing convened.
"These charges are laughable, unfounded and demented," he said. He called the charges "the invention of the public prosecutor."
Prosecutors say Berlusconi's Mediaset media empire purchased TV rights for U.S. movies through two offshore companies and falsely declared the costs to reduce its tax bill. Along with Berlusconi, 10 others are charged in the case, including Mediaset Chairman Fedele Confalonieri and Hollywood producer Frank Agrama.
The hearing continued in the afternoon without Berlusconi, and was put off until June 13. The premier has a trial or preliminary hearing scheduled nearly every Monday through July _ plus a hearing in the underage prostitution trial on May 31, a Tuesday.
He attended a closed-door preliminary hearing on March 28 in another alleged tax fraud case also involving the purchase of TV rights to broadcast American films on his private network, relating to a more recent timeframe than the Mediaset case. But he had last showed up in open court for a trial eight years ago.
He skipped the opening of the underage prostitution trial, where is also accused of using his influence to cover it up.
The premier has been tried many times, mostly in relation to his business dealings. He has always either been acquitted or seen the statute of limitations expire.
The statute of limitation is set to expire in the Mediaset case in 2013. Prosecutors argued Monday that the defense was calling too many witnesses in an attempt to slow the proceedings. But Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, said he had already reduced the number from 174 to 75.
Berlusconi has dismissed the possibility of a conviction in any of the four cases he's facing, saying: "Not in your wildest dreams!"