Berlusconi vows lawsuit over topless photos
Rome — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Friday pictures of topless women and a naked man sunbathing at his villa were "innocent," but his lawyer vowed to sue a Spanish newspaper that published them.
While Berlusconi’s attorney threatened legal action against El Pais, former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek admitted that he was the man in the photo but charged that it had been doctored.
The explosive pictures were published on the eve of European Parliament elections in Italy, which could now serve as a test on the scandal’s impact on Berlusconi’s popularity.
But the Italian leader, already engulfed in scandal over his wife’s decision to divorce him and his links to an aspiring teenage model, insisted that the photos were "innocent."
"I am not frightened. These are innocent photos, there is no scandal, but there has been an aggressive intrusion into my private life," he said on Italian public radio.
"The photos show people bathing in a jacuzzi inside a private property, something party guests were invited to do," he added.
The published pictures were among hundreds of photos that had been seized by Italian authorities after the premier filed a complaint to block their release, claiming they violated his right to privacy.
"It’s just not right for someone a kilometre away to interfere and start taking photos… The right to a private life must have greater protection when important guests are present," Berlusconi said.
One of the five photos published by El Pais shows the 72-year-old media mogul surrounded by several unidentified women — in their clothes — in the garden of his majestic villa in Sardinia.
Another shot features two women in string bikinis sunbathing topless, while another photo shows a naked man standing next to a woman lying next to a swimming pool. All the faces except Berlusconi’s were blurred out.
"It’s me in the photograph. But it has been modified. The picture is not authentic," Topolanek was quoted as saying by the Czech news website Aktualne.cz before casting his ballot in the European elections.
"Besides, I insist there is nothing wrong or compromising in the picture. It was a private holiday in closed premises, not outside on a beach," he said, calling the snapshot an "insolent interference in my privacy."
The publication of the pictures came two days after Berlusconi was placed under investigation for allegedly misusing his official plane to fly personal guests, including a flamenco dancer and a well-known singer, to his villa.
Berlusconi’s lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, told AFP on Friday he was filing a suit against El Pais.
"Prosecutors in Rome ruled that these photos were taken illegally, they are the result of an offence and cannot be sold. Anyone who buys them is also guilty of a misdemeanour," he said.
Juan Cruz, an assistant director at El Pais, said the newspaper was not aware of any legal action and defended the decision to publish the pictures as "in the public interest."
An Italian watchdog charged with protecting privacy rights reminded local media that it was illegal to use images of people inside their homes without their consent and that the photos in El Pais did not meet those rules.
Berlusconi, who is hosting the Group of Eight summit next month, has lashed out at the foreign media’s coverage of him in recent days.
He has taken his anger out on Rupert Murdoch after the rival media mogul’s London newspaper The Times wrote an editorial entitled "The Clown’s Mask Slips," in which it said Berlusconi "must answer allegations of womanising."
A Berlusconi family newspaper, Il Giornale, denounced the foreign media on Friday in an article titled "Starlettes and lies: how they insult Italy."
Berlusconi is under pressure to explain his relationship with the 18-year-old, which also features in the row with his second wife, Veronica Lario, who has filed for divorce.
Marco Belpoliti, author of a book on Berlusconi, said the prime minister was "in great difficulty" as he was losing his grip on a political strategy founded on a tightly-controlled image.
"Once immortal, he has become a mortal like other celebrities," Belpoliti told AFP.