ROME (Reuters) – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been placed under investigation for possible abuse of office over a scandal involving the use of state aircraft, state television company RAI reported on Wednesday. News agency ANSA reported judicial sources as saying Rome prosecutors were obliged to open the probe following a complaint from the Codacons consumer association but that the case could be dismissed quickly. The news, on ANSA and RAI’s televideo service, comes just ahead of this weekend’s European elections, but Italians have become accustomed Berlusconi’s legal problems after years of investigations and court cases against him, and it remains to be seen if it will have any effect on voting behaviour. Prosecutors had already opened an investigation into the misuse of state planes after media reports that guests at Berlusconi’s villa arrived on military aircraft, but the initial queries were not targeted at any individual. The 72-year-old conservative leader is already mired in a scandal over his relationship with 18-year-old aspiring model Noemi Letizia, which has prompted his wife to ask for a divorce and stirred outcry from the opposition. Berlusconi, whose popularity has weathered Italy’s worst post-war economic crisis, denies a sexual relationship with Letizia and says it is a private matter. However, a photojournalist who took pictures of guests at Berlusconi’s luxurious Sardianian villa, including Letizia when she was only 17, said he had pictured several people arriving aboard airforce planes, including a well-known Italian musician. Some of the pictures appeared in the press this week. A prosecutor on Saturday granted Berlusconi’s request to seize hundreds of photographer Antonello Zappadu’s images, taken without the prime minister’s permission from outside the villa using a powerful lens, on the grounds that they violated the right to privacy. Berlusconi said in a television interview on Wednesday the pictures showed nothing untoward and were "absolutely publishable." He said no rules had been broken regarding the use of state planes in what he called a "very petty" furore stirred up by the left-wing opposition. "A prime minister is obliged to use state planes for security reasons and if there are a few extra people on board it doesn’t cost any more money," he said. Berlusconi has been the subject of several court cases during his political career but in every instance he has either been acquitted, or the case ran out of time, or he has passed legislation making himself immune from prosecution. In February, a court sentenced British lawyer David Mills to four years and six months in prison after taking a bribe in 1997 from Berlusconi, who was then the opposition leader. Berlusconi has immunity from prosecution as prime minister under a law introduced by his government in July last year.
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