June 25, 2008 / 5:14 PM / 12 years ago

UPDATE 1-Italy's Berlusconi counts cost of legal battles

(Adds magistrates’ criticism, paragraph 15)

By Stephen Brown

ROME, June 25 (Reuters) - 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)

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