PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - Judges who convicted one of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s oldest friends of links to the mafia say he served as a mediator between Berlusconi and a top crime boss, court documents showed on Friday.
The Sicilian appeals court last June upheld a conviction for mafia links against Marcello Dell’Utri, a senator for Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party and a founder of its forerunner Forza Italia, but cut his jail sentence to seven years from nine.
On Friday, the ruling judges submitted the reasoning behind their decision in court documents seen by Reuters.
According to the documents, Dell’Utri “carried out ... an activity of mediation as a link between the mafia association Cosa Nostra, represented by its most influential representative at the time Stefano Bontate, and Silvio Berlusconi.”
A government spokesman, speaking from Lisbon where Berlusconi is attending a NATO summit, said he had no immediate comment. Berlusconi and Dell’Utri have previously denied any accusations of links with the mafia.
The Dell’Utri case relates to a period before Berlusconi’s time in office but it will do little to restore the prime minister’s battered public image.
PDL spokesman Daniele Capezzone said that the appeals court had dismissed a number of accusations that had previously been levelled against Dell’Utri.
“The appeals court has made it clear that there was no political or electoral pact with the mafia, and also dismissed a series of other hypothesis ... such as an involvement of the new centre right in (Mafia) massacres,” Capezzone said.
The documents come at a difficult time for Berlusconi, who faces a confidence vote in parliament on December 14 that could lead to early elections and a court ruling on the same day which could send him to face trial on separate corruption charges.
Already hurt by a weak economy and a series of corruption scandals that have forced several members of his government to resign, Berlusconi’s approval ratings have been further hit by an outcry over his connections to a teenage nightclub dancer.
Prosecutors had accused Dell’Utri, a long-time friend of the prime minister and a former chairman of his advertising company Publitalia, of having frequent contact with the mafia while working for Berlusconi between 1974 and 1994.
Dell’Utri was initially convicted in 2004 but has not served any jail time. The appeals court that upheld the conviction in June found no evidence of any mafia links after 1992. His lawyers said then they were considering whether to appeal.
Dell’Utri helped create Forza Italia and acted as Berlusconi’s campaign manager in the 1994 election that catapulted the media billionaire to power.
The Palermo case started in 1997, but it was testimony by a high-ranking Cosa Nostra member, arrested in 2002 and turned state informant, which provided some of the strongest accusations for the prosecution.
Witness Antonino Giuffre said Dell’Utri was the mafia’s main link with Forza Italia, receiving in return political favours and electoral support.
Giuffre also testified that Berlusconi had met with the head of Cosa Nostra, an allegation the prime minister’s lawyers have dismissed as absurd.
Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio in Rome; Writing by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Louise Ireland