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Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, involved in a mafia extortion probe, has defended giving millions of euros (dollars) to an aide as merely “helping out a good friend in need,” Italian media reported on Thursday.
The ex-premier, who was questioned by a court on Wednesday as a witness in a case dating to the 1970s when he was allegedly blackmailed by the mafia, paid Marcello Dell'Utri over 40 million euros ($50 million) over the last decade.
The billionaire is suspected of giving Dell'Utri hush money to stop him spilling details of alleged ties between Berlusconi and organised crime groups.
“Dell'Utri is a brotherly friend, we've known each other for many years and he put my first football team together,” he told magistrates according to the Corriere della Sera daily, referring to football club AC Milan, which he owns.
“He also has the enormous merit of having founded (Berlusconi's advertising firm) Publitalia. Naturally I feel in his debt and there has always been a tacit understanding that I would acknowledge these merits,” he said.
The three-hour questioning focused on the sale of a villa on Lake Como, which Berlusconi bought from Dell'Utri last year for 21
million euros, though it had been valued at 9.5 million euros, Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper said.
The media magnate was also interrogated over other payments to the Italian senator, as well as another villa which Berlusconi gave Dell'Utri the money to buy, before paying for refurbishments which saw it sell at a vast mark-up.
“It was a gift. It's not the first time I've give a present to an ex-manager from my group,” Berlusconi said according to Il Fatto, insisting: “I've never felt threatened by Marcello, I feel only gratitude and respect for him.”
Magistrates also quizzed the 75-year-old tycoon over Vittorio Mangano, a Sicilian mafioso who worked as a stable keeper at Berlusconi's villa Arcore in the 1970s on Dell'Utri's recommendation and who was later convicted for murder.
The ex-premier is suspected of having been forced to hire Mangano to appease the mafia and ensure his family's safety in a period rife with kidnappings.
“Marcello recommended him as a stable keeper. He seemed a well-bred person, pleasant,” Berlusconi told the magistrates, according to the media reports.
He denied paying protection money to the mafia via Dell'Utri, who has also strongly rejected the accusation he blackmailed his former boss.
In March, Italy's highest appeal court overturned the conviction against Dell'Utri for association with the mafia, ordering a new trial.
The businessman from Palermo, Sicily, was sentenced in 2004 to nine years' imprisonment over links to leaders of the island's Cosa Nostra crime group.
The court of appeal upheld the ruling in 2010 but reduced the sentence to seven years. It said Dell'Utri was a contact between Berlusconi and the mafia.
The senator had allowed the Cosa Nostra to “hook on to one of the biggest Italian businesses of the time, gaining illicit profit from extortion”, the ruling said, referring to Berlusconi's then-expanding business empire.
In March, Italy's highest appeal court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial because magistrates had failed to prove part of the case.
It said that Berlusconi had paid large amounts of money to the Sicilian mafia family in the 1970s so he would not be physically attacked.
A court document described him as “a victim who acted out of necessity” and said he “paid large amounts of money for his security and that of his family”.
In February, a court in Milan threw out bribery charges against Berlusconi under the statute of limitations after a five-year trial, in another judicial victory for the former prime minister. - Sapa-AFP