MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has lost his legal immunity. Today's ruling by Italy's highest court means that the prime minister will now face a number of legal cases accusing him of fraud, bribery and corruption. Berlusconi, who's also enmeshed in a tangle of sex scandals, says he has no intention of stepping down.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us now from Rome. Sylvia, how did the prime minister react to the news that his immunity has been declared unconstitutional?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Oh, he reacted very defiantly. He told reporters, viva Italia, long live Italy, viva Berlusconi. He said he would not step down and he lashed out at what he described as a cadre of leftist magistrates of a leftist dominated media. Berlusconi really could not hide his anger. And he described the cases pending against him as farces and said he feels invigorated by the challenge and in a fighting mood.
His aides also insisted that the government will remain in office until its term is over in 2013. And his closest ally, the Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, went so far as to say before the ruling that in the case of a negative response, the government would summon masses of its supporters into the streets.
NORRIS: Sylvia, could you explain this thicket of legal cases against Berlusconi?
POGGIOLI: Well, there are at least three cases pending against him that will be unfrozen. The most serious is the charge that Berlusconi bribed a British lawyer to the tune of $600,000 in exchange for his false testimony in two other corruption cases. The British lawyer, David Mills, has already been found guilty of having been corrupted by Berlusconi and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.
In a second case, Berlusconi is accused of tax fraud and false accounting over the purchase of TV rights by his film company. And then there's another case still at the level of investigation where Berlusconi allegedly bribed senators of the opposition parties to come over to his side.
NORRIS: And his legal troubles stemming from his, shall I say, relationships.
POGGIOLI: Well, the sex scandal issue began in April, actually, when his wife Veronica Lario announced she was divorcing Berlusconi saying: I can no longer remain with a man who frequents minors. She also expressed outrage that he was promoting showgirls as ministers and candidates for parliament.
And the scandals have really severely damaged Berlusconi's relations with the Italian Catholic Church, who had always supported him. Berlusconi had presented himself as a family values man and promised to pass legislation in line with Catholic doctrine, such as a bill banning living wills.
NORRIS: Now, despite all this - to the surprise of many foreigners - at least Silvio Berlusconi continues to be very popular among the Italian public.
POGGIOLI: Well, keep in mind that 80 percent of Italians get their news only from TV. And in Italy, Berlusconi, the prime minister, either directly or indirectly controls 90 to 95 percent of all Italian TV networks. And the major state-run TV network has barely covered the sex scandals at all, so, many Italians simply are not informed.
But now the question is: How will he govern? If he remains in office, he is definitely a weakened man - his government is much weaker. And Italy badly needs reforms to get the economy going, and a weak government will make those reforms much less likely.
NORRIS: Thank you, Sylvia.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli speaking to us from Rome.
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