An Italian judge yesterday ordered Silvio Berlusconi to stand trial for bribing a senator to join his party's ranks, in the latest legal setback for the former prime minister.
Berlusconi was formally charged along with his former associate, Valter Lavitola, who is accused of acting as an intermediary in the €3 million (HK$32 million) bribe, lawyers said.
The senator himself, Sergio De Gregorio, helped investigators and was granted a 20-month sentence under a plea bargain by the hearing in Naples.
The trial is due to start on February 11, 2014.
"I urge Silvio Berlusconi to leave the political scene, which would free Italy from a lot of dirt," De Gregorio told news channel SkyTG24.
Lavitola told the hearing that even if he had handled the money as alleged "there is no proof that I could have known that it was money for a bribe, I would have been simply a conduit".
But De Gregorio said: "He was the intermediary for Berlusconi in bringing me the money."
Lavitola was first placed under investigation in 2011 and fled the country for South America.
He returned after eight months on the run in April last year and was arrested at the airport.
The De Gregorio case goes back to elections in 2006 which were won by a centre-left coalition led by Romano Prodi by just a handful of votes.
A few months later, De Gregorio crossed the aisle and joined the Berlusconi opposition in a move that helped bring down Prodi in 2008.
The next elections were won handily by Berlusconi.
"I now believe I behaved in an absolutely reprehensible way and was aiming to bring down the Prodi government as part of a sort of holy war being waged by Berlusconi," De Gregorio said.
"I have said sorry like no one does in Italy."
Supporters of the 77-year-old Berlusconi immediately rallied around the three-time former prime minister, accusing prosecutors of bias.
"I can't believe it," said Daniele Capezzone, a lawmaker from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party.
"I think Italians fully understand that what has been happening in the past few years is an attack against a political leader who was freely and democratically chosen by millions," he said.
Berlusconi has often been accused by opponents of buying votes, but this is the first time he has officially been charged with corrupting a politician.
Berlusconi was convicted definitively of tax fraud in August in a ruling that could end up ejecting him from a parliamentary seat for the first time since he burst onto the political scene in 1994.
He also faces 12 months of community service in the case and being barred from running in parliamentary elections for the next six years.
De Gregorio has said he asked a senior Hong Kong government official, Duncan Pescod, to stop the transfer to Italy of evidence seized in Hong Kong in 2007 after a request by Italian prosecutors. Pescod was the city's representative to Europe at the time and was based in Brussels.
In return, De Gregorio promised to help arrange a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI for then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.
In return, the government was asked to interfere with investigations into fraud and money laundering involving Berlusconi. The connections were exposed in a series of reports in this newspaper. Despite denials from the Hong Kong parties concerned, questions remain.