(Adds magistrates' criticism, paragraph 15)
By Stephen Brown
ROME, June 25 Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
called the Italian judiciary a "cancerous growth" on Wednesday,
saying biased prosecutors had pursued him since he entered
politics 14 years ago.
Crossing his wrists like someone in handcuffs, Berlusconi
said: "Many prosecutors would like to see me like this."
Media mogul Berlusconi said he had spent 174 million euros
($271 million) on legal fees in a series of cases linked to his
business empire, which ranges from private television to
insurance services and AC Milan soccer club.
Critics of the conservative billionaire accuse him of being
"obsessed" with a hatred of the courts. They say he is abusing
his power to get a law passed that would suspend a long-running
corruption case against him and British lawyer David Mills.
Berlusconi's latest attack on the judiciary, in a speech to
a shopkeepers' conference, was met with boos and whistles.
Berlusconi won a third term in May promising to crack down
on crime. But he has spent much of his time since battling with
prosecutors and judges.
The clashes have undermined a truce between the government
and the centre-left opposition, whose leader Walter Veltroni
called Berlusconi's latest outburst "embarrassing".
President Giorgio Napolitano fears the current climate could
"rekindle a dangerous rivalry between politics and justice".
Berlusconi, the 71-year-old leader of the centre-right
People of Freedom party, accused the courts of "subverting" his
government via "crazy and unfounded accusations".
"(From 1994) to 2006, 789 prosecutors and magistrates took
an interest in the politician Berlusconi with the aim of
subverting the votes of the Italian people," he said.
Pointing out he has avoided conviction in every single case
against him so far, Berlusconi reeled off statistics that he
said constituted a "calvary" including "577 visits" by police,
2,500 court hearings and 174 million euros in lawyers' bills.
He described his "indignation" at being accused of using the
law to promote his own interests.
This referred to criticism of a bill in parliament, dubbed
the "save-the-premier law", that will suspend for one year all
trials for crimes that carry sentences of less than 10 years.
The stated aim is to prioritise trials of violent crime and
Mafia cases to avoid the danger of them elapsing under a statute
of limitations, as part of Berlusconi's crime crackdown.
Magistrates condemned the proposed legislation as
unconstitutional in a draft declaration by their governing body,
leaked to Italian media on Wednesday. They said it violated the
right to a speedy trial for defendants in suspended cases.
It could also shelve a case in which Berlusconi is charged
with paying Mills $600,000 in 1997 from alleged "secret funds"
held by his media empire Mediaset, to withhold incriminating
details of his business dealings. Both deny any wrongdoing.
Berlusconi's lawyers are also trying to get the Milan judge
in the case removed, alleging that he is politically biased.
(Additional reporting Paolo Biondi and Francesca Piscioneri;
editing by Giles Elgood)