Italy - A jailed Mafia hitman linked Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to the Cosa Nostra on Friday, telling a court that a godfather convicted for a 1993 bombing campaign had boasted of his links to the media mogul.
Berlusconi says biased courts are making false charges to bring down the 19-month-old government -- his third since 1994 -- and attack his Mediaset business empire.
Stripped of immunity from prosecution, the prime minister faced legal difficulties on two fronts on Friday, with an ally appealing against conviction on Mafia charges and an unrelated corruption case where he is accused of bribing a British lawyer.
Mafia pentito, or mobster-turned-witness, Gaspare Spatuzza told a court in Turin that a Mafia clan leader later jailed for the attacks had named Berlusconi, who had not entered politics at the time, in connection with the bombings.
He recounted a meeting with clan boss Giuseppe Graviano -- later given multiple life sentences along with his brother for the bombings in Rome, Milan and Florence -- in a cafe on Rome's Via Veneto early 1994, after the deadly bombing campaign.
Graviano told me we had obtained everything, thanks to the seriousness of the people who'd helped with our affair ... he mentioned two names, he called Berlusconi 'the man from Channel 5', said Spatuzza, referring to a Mediaset television channel.
He quoted Graviano saying: We have everything thanks to the seriousness of these people, specifically Berlusconi.
Berlusconi is not formally linked to the case, part of an appeal by a political and business associate. He has dismissed earlier evidence from Spatuzza to prosecutors as unfounded.
Spatuzza was speaking in open court for the first time as part of an appeal by pro-Berlusconi senator Marcello Dell'Utri against his conviction for association with the Mafia. He spoke behind a screen in a maximum-security room packed with reporters.
MAFIA WANTS TO SINK PM
Dell'Utri, who is fighting against a nine-year jail term, said the mob was attempting to bring down Berlusconi.
The Mafia has an interest in sinking the Berlusconi government, which has been the most rigorous in fighting organised crime, Dell'Utri told reporters at the Turin court.
It's all false. And of course Berlusconi is completely calm about it too. He's more afraid of his wife than Spatuzza, joked Dell'Utri referring to Berlusconi's current divorce proceedings.
Berlusconi has threatened to sue newspapers that reported he was being investigated and that the mob had a stake in his business. A Florence court that has reopened a probe into the bomb attacks has said that Berlusconi is not being investigated.
The prime minister said last weekend: If there's a person who by nature, sensitivity, mentality, background, culture and political effort is very far from the Mafia, it is me.
His government boasts that it has been arresting Mafiosi at the rate of eight per day and has so far confiscated some 10,000 Mafia properties worth 5.3 billion euros ($7.9 billion).
A Milan court trying Berlusconi in an unrelated case for bribing British lawyer David Mills with $600,000 in 1997 to withhold evidence about his business conceded that his official duties were a legitimate reason to postpone the trial.
Berlusconi's lawyers argued he had to meet his cabinet and then open a new highway in southern Italy instead of attending Friday's first hearing in the case, where Mills has already been sentenced to 4-1/2 years in prison, pending an appeal.
Berlusconi later changed his plans and did not attend the highway opening but remained in Rome.
Berlusconi's trial for corruption in the Mills case had been suspended thanks to an immunity law he passed. But this was then ruled unconstitutional, letting two pending trials resume.
In another trial, for tax fraud and false accounting in the acquisition of media rights by Mediaset, prosecutors say the company paid an inflated price to offshore firms controlled by Berlusconi.
The prime minister says he is confident of acquittal in both these cases but would remain in power even if convicted. He says he wants to be present in court but that official commitments prevent him from attending until January next year.
If delayed too long, the charges will elapse under the statute of limitations, as happened in another case where his holding company was hit with 750 million euros in damages last month for bribing a judge, but criminal charges against him had expired.
(Additional reporting by Phil Pullella in Rome; Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)