An Italian senator has been accused of blackmailing Silvio Berlusconi for more than 40 million euros (£31 million) in return for keeping quiet about the former prime minister's alleged links to the Sicilian mafia.
Prosecutors in Palermo, Sicily, claim that Marcello Dell'Utri extorted the money from Mr Berlusconi over the last decade in exchange for not revealing the "pact" that the billionaire businessman allegedly forged with Cosa Nostra at the start of his political career in the 1990s.
They began investigating earlier this year after becoming suspicious over the amount of money Mr Berlusconi paid for the purchase of a villa owned by Mr Dell'Utri on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy.
In March the 75-year-old billionaire tycoon paid 21 million euros (£16 million) for the lakeside home, regarded by many property experts as being way over its true value.
The Palermo prosecutors claim that Mr Berlusconi did a deal with Cosa Nostra in order to secure votes in Sicily when he launched his Forza Italia political party in 1992 and that Mr Dell'Utri was the middle man.
The ex-prime minister has denied having any links, political or commercial, with organised crime groups.
Mr Dell'Utri, who is one of the former prime minister's oldest friends and has worked in his Fininvest business empire, is appealing against a conviction for mafia association in a case that has been dragging through the courts since 1997.
He strongly denied the blackmail allegations and described the investigators as "sick" and "pathological".
"Now they're accusing me of extortion. The only thing I haven't been charged with is paedophilia. I have certainly never blackmailed anyone, least of all my friend Silvio," he said.
The accusations come just days after Mr Berlusconi's aides, including the chairman of his People of Freedom Party, said he was preparing to contest the next election, expected in the Spring, in the hope of becoming prime minister for the fourth time.
Mr Berlusconi is not accused of any crime in the alleged blackmail. Instead he is considered a victim, as is his eldest daughter Marina, the eldest of his five children, who has been summoned to appear before prosecutors later this month.
The allegations are part of long-standing investigations into alleged links between the Italian state and the mafia in the early 1990s.
Italy yesterday commemorated the 20th anniversary one of the most notorious atrocities from the period – the murder of Paolo Borsellino, a prominent anti-mafia magistrate, who was blown up by a massive bomb outside an apartment block in Palermo.