Italy's Berlusconi found guilty of tax fraud, sentenced to prison

Berlusconi

LONDON -- Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was found guilty of tax fraud Friday and sentenced to four years in prison, a stunning setback for the media mogul-turned-politician who has dominated Italy's political landscape for the last 20 years.

But Berlusconi, 76, will almost certainly appeal the verdict and is not expected to go to prison anytime soon -- and possibly not at all because of Italian restrictions against putting someone his age behind bars, analysts say.

Still, the conviction is a blow for a man who only a few months ago floated the idea of a comeback as Italy’s leader after having been forced to step down last November. Earlier this week, Berlusconi ended speculation by announcing that he would not run for reelection after all but would focus on grooming younger leaders.

Whether the decision to retire from elected office was made in anticipation of a guilty verdict in the tax fraud trial is unclear. Besides the prison term, the sentence handed down Friday in Milan bars Berlusconi from holding public office for three years, the Italian news agency Ansa reported.

The case centered on purchases by Berlusconi’s company, Mediaset, of television rights for American movies. Prosecutors argued that Mediaset bought the rights through offshore entities and then falsely declared those payments in order to avoid paying taxes.

The trial began six years ago but made only spasmodic progress, partly because of delaying tactics by Berlusconi’s defense team and because of an on-again, off-again immunity law for certain elected officials. He has two levels of appeal open to him, meaning that the case could drag on for some years.

Many Italians believed that Berlusconi would never be convicted for his alleged offenses because of the way his government tried to manipulate the judicial system and because of his vast fortune and political connections.

Aside from the case decided Friday, Berlusconi is also on trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage girl whom he later allegedly tried to spring from police custody by using his political influence. That influence is likely to diminish significantly now, analysts say.

When the flamboyant and controversial former leader announced Wednesday that he would not stand for reelection, Berlusconi told Italian media that his decision to step back was motivated by the same patriotism that induced him to go into politics nearly 20 years ago.

“For love of Italy one can do crazy things and wise things,” he said. “Now I want to take a step back with the same love that moved me to act then.”

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Pakistani girl shot by Taliban 'will rise again,' father says

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Berlusconi denies sleeping with teen, says parties weren't sexual

-- Henry Chu

Photo: Then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in July 2011, four months before he resigned under fire. Credit:  Reuters


Pakistani girl shot by Taliban 'will rise again,' father says

Malala and Family

LONDON -- The father of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head for standing up to the Taliban in defense of education for girls, called his daughter’s survival a miracle Friday and vowed that she would “rise again.”

Ziauddin Yousafzai, visiting his daughter for the first time since she was flown from Pakistan for treatment in a British hospital, also said that the global and domestic outrage over the attack on Malala represented a “turning point” for his troubled country.

“They wanted to kill her, but I would say that she fell temporarily. She will rise again, she will stand again,” Yousafzai told reporters. “When she fell, Pakistan stood.”

PHOTOS: Malala Yousafzai

Yousafzai and other members of Malala’s family arrived in Britain on Thursday for an emotional reunion with the wounded 15-year-old, who was shot by Taliban militants at point-blank range Oct. 9. Two other girls on the school bus with Malala were also injured, one critically.

Six days later, Malala arrived at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, in central England. Doctors say the teenager is making a slow but steady recovery.

“Last night when we met her there were tears in our eyes … out of happiness,” said Yousafzai, who lives in Pakistan’s scenic but embattled Swat Valley, where Taliban militants have sought to impose their harshly fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

“She got the right treatment at the right place at the right time,” he said. “An attacker who could be called the agent of Satan, he attacked, but … I found angels on my side -- everywhere all around me -- in this time, in this place.”

Malala rose to prominence by speaking out against the Taliban’s opposition to education for girls and by keeping a blog of her experiences for the BBC’s Urdu Service. Her shooting sparked revulsion in Pakistan and around the world, and triggered large rallies in her support.

Her father said that he initially feared she might not survive the brazen attack.

“The next day when she was operated [on], her whole body was swollen, and she was in very bad condition …. I told my brother-in-law that you should make preparations for her funeral,” Yousafzai recalled, fighting back tears.

The bullet entered Malala’s head near the temple and burrowed down the side of her head and neck before lodging above her shoulder blade. The impact drove bone fragments from her skull into her brain, but doctors say they have not detected “any deficit in terms of function” so far.

PHOTOS: Malala Yousafzai

Malala has been able to stand up with help from hospital staffers, and she has communicated through writing. Doctors say that she will eventually undergo reconstructive surgery to her skull and possibly her jaw, but that she first needs some weeks of rest.

“I’m thankful to all the people all over the world, indifferent to caste, creed, religion, faith, country, age, sex -- everyone, everyone across the world,” her father said. “They condemned the attack in strong words, and they prayed for my daughter, who is not only my daughter; she is the daughter
of everybody, the sister of everybody.”

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-- Henry Chu

Photo: Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban, lies in her hospital bed in central England with her father and brothers at her side. Credit: Queen Elizabeth Hospital


London's historic Admiralty Arch will become a hotel

Admiralty Arch in London
LONDON -- Admiralty Arch, a century-old stone archway and building that serves as the ceremonial gateway to Buckingham Palace, is to get a new lease on life as a luxury hotel, a government minister confirmed Thursday.

Built by King Edward VII to honor the long reign of his mother Queen Victoria, the arch has been leased to Spanish property entrepreneur Rafael Serrano, chief executive of the London-based investment company Prime Investors Capital. Serrano paid about $96 million for the 99-year lease.

From the top of the central archway on one side guests will enjoy a view toward Buckingham Palace down the Mall, the tree-lined avenue that is the traditional route of royal processions, including April’s royal wedding cortege of Prince William and his bride Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. The other side looks down on Trafalgar Square, home to Nelson’s Column and a meeting point for public celebrations, rallies and protests.

It is the latest of the government property fire sales around Europe over the last two years that come amid austerity drives to tame massive deficits. In France and Italy, government-owned palaces and villas have gone to wealthy private investors. In Greece, state-owned buildings, marinas and ports reportedly are up for sale.

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Rogue French trader loses appeal, faces prison, colossal damages

France Trader

This post has been updated. See the notes below.

PARIS -- A French appeals court Wednesday upheld the conviction of former bank trader Jerome Kerviel for committing one of the biggest financial frauds in history.

Kerviel, 35, was ordered to spend three years in prison and to pay back his former employer, French bank Societe Generale, a whopping $6.4 billion in damages to cover its costs from his trades.

During a four-week hearing in June, Kerviel, described by the public prosecutor as a "perverse manipulator," had asked the Paris appeal court to overturn his conviction in October 2010 for breach of trust, forgery and entering false data. On Wednesday, the court rejected his appeal.

The former trader did not profit personally from making unauthorized bets on the futures markets to the tune of nearly $65 billion, and he is not believed to have the means to pay the damages. He has always maintained that his bosses knew what he was doing and that they turned a blind eye to his trading as long as he was making money.

However, the appeals court threw out his defense and decided Kerviel was "the sole creator, inventor and user of a fraudulent system that caused these damages to Societe Generale."

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Germany unveils memorial to Holocaust's Roma victims

Germany Sinti Roma Holocaust Memorial
BERLIN -- A memorial dedicated to Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust was unveiled in the center of the German capital Wednesday after years of delay caused by a dispute between the artist and the city over costs and design.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel inaugurated the new monument, joined by President Joachim Gauck and dozens of Roma survivors of World War II. The memorial features a small pedestal jutting out from the center of a round pool of water on which a fresh flower is to be placed daily. A poem titled "Auschwitz," by Italian Santino Spinelli, is engraved around the pool's rim, which is circled by jagged stones laid in the grass.

The memorial, designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, is in the Tiergarten, Berlin's largest urban park, which lies across the street from the Reichstag, the German Parliament building.

The exact number of Roma, also known as Gypsies, killed in the Holocaust is unknown, but experts estimate that up to 500,000 could have died. The Nazis deemed the Roma racially inferior and shipped them to concentration camps, where many were killed and subjected to medical experiments.

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BBC investigating other allegations of sexual abuse

Entwhistle
LONDON –- The head of the scandal-hit BBC said Tuesday that the broadcaster is investigating allegations of sexual abuse or harassment against several of its staff members, apart from recent revelations about a popular children’s show host who may have molested scores of young girls over decades.

Under pointed questioning by members of Parliament, Director General George Entwistle acknowledged that the British Broadcasting Corp.’s reputation and integrity have been badly undermined by the snowballing scandal over the late Jimmy Savile, the star presenter now suspected of having been a serial child molester.

“This is a gravely serious matter,” Entwistle said, “and one cannot look back at it with anything other than horror.”

He also said that a BBC news program’s probe into accusations against Savile should not have been shelved by a senior editor who considered the story too weak. That editor was forced to step down Monday pending the outcome of an independent inquiry into why the investigation was called off weeks before the segment was to be broadcast late last year, around the same time that the BBC aired glowing tributes to Savile, who had died a couple of months before.

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Italian seismologists ordered to prison for not warning of quake risk

Italy quake verdict
ROME -- A court found six scientists and an official guilty of manslaughter Monday for failing to properly warn residents in the central Italy city of L’Aquila about the risk of an impending earthquake that killed more than 300 people in 2009.

The three-judge court handed down a prison sentence of six years for each of the defendants, more than the four years requested by the prosecution in a case that many thought should never have gone to court because of the virtual impossibility of predicting an earthquake.

The verdict, which was watched with interest by seismologists and public administrators in other parts of the world marked by frequent seismic activity, including Los Angeles, immediately drew criticism from scientists who said that it would have a chilling effect on experts called on to assess emergencies.

Tremors of varying magnitude had plagued the area around L’Aquila for months before an 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck April 6, 2009, and devastated the city and surrounding villages across a wide area.

Prosecutors said that the men, six members of the Major Risks Commission and an official with the Civil Protection Agency, gave the already-frightened residents “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” after meeting to evaluate the situation six days before the temblor hit.

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Berlusconi denies sleeping with teen, says parties weren't sexual

 

ROME -- Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told a Milan court Friday that he had never had sex with an underage Moroccan girl and that the so-called "bunga bunga" parties with sexy games and stripteases at his home were instead lively dinners followed by amusing shows in his private theater.

Berlusconi, 76, also told the court that he had never pressured police to release Karima el-Marough, the Moroccan teenager also known as “Ruby Heart-Stealer,” when she was arrested in May 2010 on suspicion of theft.

The former leader is accused of paying for sex with el-Mahroug, a sometime nightclub dancer, when she was 17, and of abuse of power for allegedly asking police to release her to one of his aides rather than to foster care where she might divulge details about his parties. El-Mahroug has also denied having sex with Berlusconi.

In what the Italian trial system allows as “spontaneous” remarks, Berlusconi spoke uninterrupted for more than an hour to say that his dinner parties were convivial occasions where guests spoke about politics, sports, told some jokes and listened to music.

“I can say with absolute tranquillity that there was never anything of a sexual nature” during the now-legendary evenings, he said, which often ended with entertainment that was “never vulgar or scandalous.”

The term “bunga bunga,” which went viral after it was divulged in the Italian media, was simply a line from a joke that was misused by news organizations that have always opposed him politically, he said.

Berlusconi told the court that el-Mahroug had described herself as a 24-year-old Egyptian with family links to then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Berlusconi was derided in the Italian press for saying that he called the police station where she was being held in order to avoid an diplomatic incident with Egypt.

The “Ruby” incident grew into a much larger investigation that revealed the participation of dozens of showgirls and would-be starlets in parties at Berlusconi’s mansion in Arcore, a suburb of Milan.

According to transcripts of wiretaps and testimony from some of the young women, he gave large sums of money to those who participated in the parties, as well as paid their rent and bought them cars.

Berlusconi was accompanied in court Friday by his two lawyers, Pietro Longo and Niccolo Ghedini, both members of parliament with Berlusconi's PDL party.

As he has in the past, Berlusconi denied that he has ever paid for sex. He said that his private life had been the object of “nearly maniacal” attention.

He was forced to resign as prime minister last November because of Italy’s financial and economic crisis, but his authority had already been seriously weakened at home and abroad by the sex scandals.

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Wounded Pakistani girl Malala now able to stand but battling infection

-- Sarah Delaney


Wounded Pakistani girl Malala now able to stand but battling infection

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot by the Taliban for championing the right of girls to education, has been able to stand for the first time since the attack and is communicating by writing, a British hospital official said
LONDON -- Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education-rights campaigner who was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan, has been able to stand for the first time since the attack and is communicating by writing, a British hospital official said Friday.

But the 14-year-old whose plight has aroused international concern is still fighting an infection caused by the bullet that entered her skull, burrowed through her jaw and lodged in her shoulder blade, said David Rosser, medical director at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, in central England. Malala was flown to the hospital this week to receive treatment.

Rosser said she continued to show signs of improvement since waking from a long anesthesia.

"One of the first things she asked the nurses was what country she was in," he told reporters, adding: "She's closer to the edge of the woods, but she's not out of the woods."

The teenager was shot in a school bus in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where she had risen to prominence by courageously advocating the right to education for girls despite the fanatical Taliban's sway over the region. The Taliban has vowed to finish her off, prompting tight security at the Birmingham hospital.

PHOTOS: Pakistani teen shot by Taliban

But far from quashing Malala's cause, the attack sparked huge rallies across Pakistan and the rest of the world on her behalf. Rosser said she was "keen to thank people" for their outpouring of support and wanted the world to be kept apprised of her condition.

He said that scans had shown some damage to her brain, which was grazed by the bullet. But encouragingly, "at this stage we're not seeing any deficit in terms of function. She seems to be able to understand; she has some memory. ... She's able to stand. She's got motor control, so she's able to write."

Malala appears to have some recall of the attack, but those around her are refraining from bringing up the topic, Rosser said.

"From a lot of the work we've done with our military casualties, we know that reminding people of traumatic events at this stage increases the potential for psychological problems later," he said.

A tube in her trachea makes it impossible for her to speak, but the hospital is trying to arrange for her to listen to her father on the phone. Her family remains in Pakistan; efforts are underway to bring them to Britain to be at her bedside.

Rosser said the girl would require a couple of weeks of recuperation before surgeons try to reconstruct the damaged part of her skull and possibly her jaw.

"It would be over-optimistic to say that there are not going to be further problems," Rosser said. "But it is possible she’ll make a full recovery."

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-- Henry Chu

Photo: Women in the British city of Birmingham hold a vigil Thursday for wounded Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, who is receiving treatment at a hospital in the city. Credit: Gavin Fogg / AFP/Getty Images


Former Balkan leader proclaims innocence of genocide charges

KaradzicLONDON -- Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic declared his innocence and argued that he tried to stop the violent 1990s conflict in his Balkans homeland as he began his defense against war crimes charges Tuesday before an international tribunal in The Hague.

The ex-president of the wartime Republika Sprska faces 10 counts of genocide and related war crimes  committed during the Balkan conflict that followed the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

“Instead of being accused, I should be rewarded for all the good things I’ve done, namely that I did everything in human power to avoid the war," said Karadzic, 67, who looked relaxed but resigned with a professorial air. "The number of victims in our war was three to four times less than the number reported.” 

Karadzic stands accused of aiding and abetting some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II, committed primarily against Bosnian Muslims and Croats. He is charged with having a hand in the notorious killing of over 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica; in the “sniping and shelling to kill, maim, wound and terrorize the civilian inhabitants of Sarajevo” resulting in the death of thousands of civilians; and in the taking of hostages, including U.N. peacekeepers and military observers, to use as a human shields against NATO airstrikes.

“Everybody who knows me knows that I am not an autocrat ... that I am not intolerant, on the contrary I am a mild-mannered man, a tolerant man, with a great capacity for understanding others,” Karadzic told the court as he denied the charges.

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