The view from the ground.

Berlusconi’s Worst Nightmare

The decades-long battle between Silvio Berlusconi and Italy's most famous prosecutor is entering its final round. The prime minister's career and Italy's democracy hang in the balance.

MILAN, ITALY: State Prosecutor Ilda Boccassini is seen during Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's long-running corruption trial in Milan's courthouse, 03 December 2004. Boccassini has sought a maximum eight-year-jail sentence for the prime minister, as well as asking the court to impose a life ban on him holding public office. Bocassini told the court that Berlusconi bribed judges to block the 1985 sale of state-owned food company SME to his rival Carlo De Benedetti, boss of Italian food giant Buitoni. Defence lawyers demanded Berlusconi's acquittal. AFP PHOTO/PACO SERINELLI (Photo credit should read PACO SERINELLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, the Italian magazine Panorama published a huge photo of Ilda Boccassini, Milan’s 61 year-old public prosecutor, on its front cover under the title “Il Vizietto,” the Little Vice. The vice in question was not that of the magazine’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi, who is the current and long-time object of Boccassini’s investigatory ardor. The misbehavior that the magazine intended to highlight was the magistrate’s own — namely, her relentless persecution of the Italian prime minister. Indeed, in seeking an indictment of Berlusconi for the better part of the past two decades, Boccassini has herself become a defendant in Italy’s court of public opinion.

Boccassini, who over the course of her career has earned the nickname “Ilda the Red” for both her flame-colored hair and her left-wing sympathies, has polarized a society sharply divided when it comes to the embattled prime minister. An opinion poll published Jan. 23 by the Corriere della Sera newspaper showed that 49 percent of Italians thought Berlusconi should resign because of his latest sex scandal, while 45 percent believed he should not. Boccassini has earned the support of those who dislike Berlusconi: Roberto Saviano, the bestselling author who has a famously contentious relationship with the prime minister, dedicated an honorary law degree he received last week to Boccassini, praising her for fulfilling her “duty of justice.” But for admirers of the premier, the prosecutor has become a symbol of the judiciary’s obsessive, and self-interested, drive to restore its place at the top of the national political hierarchy.

Italy’s judicial officials pride themselves for having essentially been the founding fathers of the current political order, the so-called “Second Republic” that got its start in the mid-1990s. Italy’s “First Republic,” which was inaugurated after the conclusion of World War II, was ostensibly democratic, but it was never marked by a consistent rule of law. The highest echelons of power were in the hands of a corrupt network of politicians, industrialists, and organized criminals, and little was done to challenge the elite. With the specter of Italy’s Communist Party and the threat of Soviet espionage looming large, the judiciary tacitly agreed not to dig into the crimes of leading public servants.

That changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The “Bribesville” corruption investigations of the early 1990s revealed to the Italian public for the first time the extent of political corruption plaguing their government and economy. Spearheaded by the Milan public prosecutor’s office of which Boccassini is now a part, the investigation forced politicians and top businessmen to testify in damning court proceedings that were televised nationwide. An entire political generation was tainted and discredited by the ensuing trials: Four of Italy’s seven existing parties disbanded entirely, including the Christian Democratic Party that had been the dominant force in politics for the previous 50 years. The series of electoral, ethics, and economic reforms subsequently passed from 1992 through 1997 heralded the beginning of the Second Republic, under which the elite were to be held accountable for their misdeeds.

Most of Italy’s politicians have consistently been on the defensive ever since, daunted by the watchful eye of the courts. Berlusconi has been the major exception. Some suspect that the media magnate started his political career in the wake of the Bribesville affair precisely to mitigate its effect on his own financial dealings. Indeed, taking the courts down a peg — most often with dismissive rhetoric, but also by passing laws that shield him and his associates from prosecution — has been one of Berlusconi’s most consistent political priorities over the years.

For Boccassini and Berlusconi, the stakes are higher now than they’ve ever been: This may well be their final showdown. But with the country’s newspaper headlines reaching a tawdry fever pitch and the national government unable to conduct its business amid the din of accusations and counteraccusations, it increasingly seems that the case will be settled in the court of public opinion before it ever engages the attention of a judge.

Boccassini is largely responsible, however unintentionally, for instigating the nationwide furor. On Jan. 15, she sent a 389-page document to the parliamentary authorizations committee — which was promptly, and unsurprisingly, leaked to the media — to support her request for permission to search the office of Berlusconi’s personal finance manager for evidence that the prime minister had paid for sex with an underage prostitute and abused his office to cover up the crime. Berlusconi’s defenders say that the prosecutor revealed her political bias from the very beginning: Whereas the prosecution’s request could have been satisfied with just a few pages of summarized evidence, Boccassini’s document contains lurid allegations about the prime minister’s private life.

Sensing (or choosing to believe) that this was as much a political as a judicial campaign, Berlusconi’s mighty media empire — three national television channels, a daily newspaper, and several weekly magazines — has portrayed Boccassini’s investigation as a witchhunt. The magistrates have mounted a kind of judicial coup d’état, they say, attempting to subvert Italy’s democratic elections. “It’s the usual attempt by fanatics in the judiciary to overstep their proper role and influence the political scene,” Mariastella Gelmini, who serves under Berlusconi as education minister, told Panorama. The Berlusconi camp accuses the magistrates of devoting disproportionate resources to the most recent inquiry: Investigators had conducted almost 100,000 wiretaps in a six-month period, at a rate of about 600 per day.

Berlusconi has testified to the public on his own behalf in a video message that he sent last week to an association of his supporters, the Freedom Promoters, and that was later broadcast by his television channels. In it, he personally accused the prosecutors of conjuring a case against him from thin air, invading his privacy and that of his friends, and intimidating witnesses. It was Boccassini and her colleagues, not Berlusconi himself, he claimed, who merited “adequate punishment.”

While prosecutors haven’t responded to Berlusconi’s accusations that their investigation has been unlawful, there’s been no doubting that it has been tireless: Investigators carefully tracked cell phone signals in Berlusconi’s Arcore mansion to build a picture of the colorful female entourage gravitating around the prime minister, a technique first used in the hunt for mafia boss Salvatore “Toto” Riina in 1993. And it’s no coincidence that the Berlusconi investigation, with its blend of sophisticated technological surveillance and meticulous traditional police work, resembles an anti-mafia probe: Boccassini honed her investigative skills, after all, in the battle against the Cosa Nostra.

Born in Naples, Boccassini became a prosecutor in 1977, cutting her teeth in the 1980s mafia investigations. Along the way, she earned a reputation for irascible stubbornness and moral rectitude: She rarely speaks to journalists and imposes strict secrecy on those who work for her. Some say she was scarred by the murder in 1992 of her onetime colleague and close friend, Giovanni Falcone, the legendary mafia investigator. Boccassini moved to Sicily immediately afterward to help investigate the killers, who were eventually convicted of the crime. But in a speech at a Milan high school in 2007, she admitted that she has never entirely gotten over the loss. “I still feel resentment and anger,” she said. “That’s not nice, but I have to admit that’s how it is.”

Boccassini’s relationship with the prime minister is inextricably linked to the Falcone case: In investigating his murder in the early 1990s, she came across allegations that Berlusconi, who was serving his first stint as prime minister at the time, had financial ties to the Sicilian mafia. So Boccassini was already familiar with Berlusconi when she was tasked in 1995 with investigating him for bribing Rome magistrates in order to gain control of the Mondadori publishing group. On that occasion Berlusconi got off the hook, because his legan team managed to drag out the proceedings beyond the statute of limitations.

Given that history, Boccassini could be forgiven for approaching Berlusconi’s current case with a priori suspicions. But her supporters insist that the investigations of the prime minister are not in any way the product of a personal vendetta. “She subscribes to Falcone’s philosophy, which holds that a judge must act without passion, depersonalizing and depoliticizing his approach to his work,” said a Milan journalist who knows her well, but did not want to be identified. “She is very cold and detached.”

The result so far has been a stalemate: The prime minister has avoided punishment, but Berlusconi’s associates have been convicted for crimes apparently committed on his behalf. One of Berlusconi’s lawyers, David Mills, was convicted in 2009 for pocketing a $600,000 bribe to commit perjury on his behalf; a business associate, Marcello Dell’Utri, was sentenced last year to seven years in prison for complicity with the Cosa Nostra; but through it all, Berlusconi himself has remained untouched. Time after time, he has either been acquitted, seen the case against him timed out under the statute of limitations, or simply had the law changed to abolish the crime. (Until recently, Berlusconi had made liberal use of an immunity law in order to avoid trial, though that statute was thrown out by Italy’s constitutional court earlier this month.)

The pursuit of the prime minister has been a chastening experience for Boccassini. Because of her insistence on holding the prime minister accountable, she and her colleagues have been subject to disciplinary proceedings initiated by the justice minister, and she has watched as other colleagues have been promoted ahead of her. What’s clear to everyone by now is that Boccassini isn’t easily deterred or intimidated: On Jan. 24, she announced that the latest evidence compiled against Berlusconi, on charges of illegal prostitution and abuse of office, is so clear cut that she will move for a fast-track trial for the prime minister. A trial could begin in as little as three months, and a conviction would undoubtedly put an abrupt end to Berlusconi’s 17-year political career.

But Berlusconi can still use his soapbox to try to rally the public against Boccassini and her colleagues. Indeed, the bombastic prime minister has been less inclined to offer sober arguments about the rule of law than wage a scorched-earth campaign to delegitimize the judiciary wholesale. Boccassini may have always claimed to just be a prosecutor, but with the legitimacy of Italy’s judiciary threatening to erode under Berlusconi’s onslaught, she now finds herself public defender of an entire political order.

Philip Willan is a Rome-based freelance journalist and the author of two books on Italy's Cold War history. His website is www.philipwillan.com.

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