Berlusconi bribery trial opens in Italy

NAPLES, Italy - Silvio Berlusconi's latest trial opened in Naples on Tuesday, this time for allegedly bribing a senator in 2006 to join his party in a move aimed at destabilising a rival centre-left government in power at the time.

The trial is the third ongoing case against Berlusconi, who is appealing a prison sentence for having sex with an underage 17-year-old prostitute and abuse of office and another for leaking a confidential police wiretap.

The 77-year-old billionaire tycoon last year was also convicted for tax fraud - his first ever definitive conviction - and has been ejected from the Italian Senate and lost his parliamentary immunity.

Berlusconi, who regularly protests his innocence by accusing prosecutors of engineering a left-wing political plot against him, was not at the hearing and is not obliged to attend under Italian law.

He is accused of giving 3.0 million euros (S$5.2 million) in 2006 to Sergio De Gregorio, then a senator from the anti-corruption Italy of Values party, to join his People of Freedom party and help undermine the centre-left government in power at the time.

A former Berlusconi aide, Valter Lavitola, is also on trial for being the alleged intermediary for the bribe

The trial is being held in Naples as it was the seat occupied by De Gregorio, who is working with investigators.

Among the issues on the table at the first hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday will be a request from Senate speaker Pietro Grasso to be considered a plaintiff in the trial - a move that has proved hugely controversial among Berlusconi's supporters.

A new judge is also due to be named as the current one has declared a conflict of interests - she is married to a prosecutor who worked in the trial against Berlusconi for underage sex and abuse of office.

The list of witnesses for the trial includes former prime minister and former European Commission president Romano Prodi, as well as two former senators expected to say they were offered bribe money by Berlusconi.

De Gregorio has told investigators that he received two million euros in cash and one millions euros for his political movement "Italians in the World".

Berlusconi unrepentant

Berlusconi's lawyers Michele Cerabona and Niccolo Ghedini are expected to argue that corrupting the senator would have been impossible since every lawmaker can vote freely, whatever their party affiliation.

Berlusconi this year will also be appealing his prostitution and abuse of power convictions, as well as one for leaking a confidential police wiretap in an attempt to damage a centre-left political rival.

The three-time former prime minister was forced out of parliament for the first time in his 20-year political career in November following a tax fraud conviction.

While Berlusconi does not have to go to prison because of his age, a court in April will decide whether he has to do a year of community service or house arrest for that crime.

Although he is banned from parliament, it has not prevented Berlusconi from seeking to remain a powerful force, although it could impose limits on his ability to campaign.

While some of his former proteges have switched to the New Centre-Right party in a ruling coalition with Prime Minister Enrico Letta, Berlusconi is rallying support for his re-founded Forza Italia (Go Italy) party.

Forza Italia is in second place in opinion polls behind the centre-left Democratic Party with 25 percent.

The gaffe-prone media magnate is unrepentant despite his frequent run-ins with the justice system and still enjoys the support of million of Italians.

But after 20 years of "Berlusconism" and a two-year economic crisis, there are indications that the attention in Italy is shifting away from Berlusconi.

The main political interest now is on the centre-left - the rivalry between Letta and the ambitious new head of the Democratic Party, 39-year-old Matteo Renzi.