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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Italian Prime Minister spent last night in a Milan hospital after being attacked by a man who threw a souvenir of the city's cathedral. The small stone statuette broke Silvio Berlusconi's nose and knocked out several of his teeth. The attacker, who's been arrested, has a history of mental illness. This was the latest setback to a prime minister who has faced a slew of sex scandals and charges of corruption. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In response to growing demands for his resignation, Berlusconi has become an even more polarizing leader. Just minutes before the attack, he railed against magistrates, whom he accused of conspiring against him, and he rejected allegations that he has ties to the Mafia.
Just 10 days ago, a former Mafia hit man convicted to life in prison for numerous brutal murders testified in court from behind a screen surrounded by a phalanx of police, Gaspare Spatuzza testified about a 1994 meeting with his Mafia boss, who boasted of his connections; with the media mogul from Milan.
Mr. GASPARE SPATUZZA: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: The boss spoke to me about Berlusconi, the owner of the TV network, Spatuzza told the court, and he told me that thanks to the seriousness of Berlusconi and his Sicilian friend, Marcello Dell'Utri, we had the country in our hands.
Marcello Dell'Utri was co-founder of Berlusconi's political party. The court was hearing his appeal of a nine-year sentence for Mafia association.
Berlusconi's spokesman dismissed the testimony as Mafia revenge for the government's fight against organized crime. And party official Maurizio Gasparri was disparaging about Spatuzza.
Mr. MAURIZIO GASPARRI (Party official): (Through translator) This kind of creature should rot in a dark jail cell for the rest of his life. The government won't be affected in any way by this testimony.
POGGIOLI: Rumors have circulated for years that Berlusconi began his real estate career thanks to Mafia financing. Recently, speaking to his supporters, he railed against people who link Italy with the mob.
Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through translator) If I ever find those who write TV series and books about the Mafia which give such a bad image of Italy across the world, I swear I'll strangle them.
(Soundbite of applause)
POGGIOLI: The day after Spatuzza's testimony, hundreds of thousands of Italians marched through Rome for what was dubbed a No Berlusconi Day. It was the first mass protest organized exclusively through the Web, not by political parties. One demonstrator was Alberto Spampinato, whose own brother was murdered in Sicily years ago for his investigative reporting. Spampinato, who monitors journalists threatened by the mob, said the prime minister's comments further endangered the lives of many reporters.
Mr. ALBERTO SPAMPINATO: In Italy we have a lot of journalists who are threatened by the Mafia. We reported 46 journalists threatened in last three years.
POGGIOLI: Giovanni Sardisco and his friends came all the way from Palermo, Sicily. He said it's time to say enough.
Mr. GIOVANNI SARDISCO: (Through translator) The Mafia has infiltrated the palaces of power. It's up to the courts to determine whether Berlusconi is a link to the Mafia. But he always avoids trials through the statute of limitations or with custom-made laws. That's why we are here to protest.
POGGIOLI: Investigative journalist Marco Travaglio has written several books claiming that Berlusconi has long had links with the Mafia. The prime minister and Dell'Utri have sued him several times, but Travaglio has always won in court.
Mr. MARCO TRAVAGLIO (Journalist): (Through translator): Thanks to Palermo court documents, we know that Berlusconi entered the political arena in 1994, both for his own interests and for those of the mob.
POGGIOLI: In his business and political lives, Berlusconi has faced numerous investigations and trials. Nearly 20 pieces of legislation have been passed by his allies to help him avoid prosecution.
Last Thursday, speaking to the congress of center-right European politicians, Berlusconi vented his anger at those he called communist magistrates.
Prime Minister BERLUSCONI: (Through translator) Sovereignty in Italy has been usurped from parliament by magistrates. But we have a big majority, and we'll amend the constitution.
POGGIOLI: Several new bills are on a fast track in parliament. If passed, Berlusconi would be granted immunity from prosecution while in office. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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