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Court to rule on Berlusconi immunity law

11 January 2011, 12:17

Rome - Premier Silvio Berlusconi awaits a politically-charged decision by a top Italian court this week on whether a law that shields him from prosecution complies with the constitution.

The premier is a defendant in two trials in Milan accusing him of corruption and tax fraud. Both proceedings have been suspended thanks to the legislation, but will resume if the law is overturned by the Constitutional Court.

Berlusconi has always denied wrongdoing.

The 15-judge court holds an open hearing on Tuesday during which the parties will lay out their cases. A decision is not expected until Thursday.

The law, bitterly contested by the opposition, was passed in March by Berlusconi's conservative forces who control parliament, and went into effect the following month. It marked the third attempt at shielding Berlusconi during his various stints as head of government.

The legislation suspends court proceedings for up to 18 months if the defendant has a "legitimate impediment" stemming from being premier or a member of government. It was designed as a stopgap measure to buy the conservatives time while they prepare a more thorough immunity law for top officials.

History of legal woes

The judiciary and the role of magistrates are touchy issues in Italy, all the more so when associated with Berlusconi. The premier has a history of legal woes and makes no secret of his contempt for what he considers left-leaning prosecutors and judges bent on driving him from office.

This law was no exception.

Critics contended the measure was tailor-made to protect Berlusconi from the trials, with some screaming "Shame!" in parliament when the law passed. On Monday, a citizens group opposed to Berlusconi held a small demonstration in Rome, and invited Italians to light a candle on Tuesday - a symbolic gesture meant to illuminate the path of the court in its decision.

Backers insist the measure is needed because Italians voted for Berlusconi to govern, not be distracted by court cases.

"A declaration of unconstitutionality of the law would be a very hard (blow) for the government, not only for the fact that the trials will go on automatically, but also for the symbolic meaning of this," said Chiara Magrini, a legal expert and professor at John Cabot University.

Berlusconi is coming off a turbulent period. Weakened by sex scandals, he barely survived two confidence votes last month to cling to power, but his majority in parliament remains shaky.

Several possible outcomes

The Constitutional Court needs to ascertain that the measure complies with the principle that all are equal under the law, and that it meets the necessary formal requirements. Berlusconi's lawyers insist the legislation only provides a temporary shield because of the 18 month-limit and falls short of granting a full-fledged immunity.

Outright rejection is one possible outcome. Backing the law is another and would be a victory for Berlusconi because his trials would remain suspended. Other scenarios envisage compromise solutions: One mentioned by Italian newspapers and legal experts would have the Constitutional Court delegate to individual judges to decide whether Berlusconi has a legitimate impediment for each trial.

Berlusconi, who has been voted into power three times in the past 17 years, has tried twice before to have an immunity law pass the scrutiny of the constitutional judges. But in both 2004 and 2009, the Constitutional Court rejected the legislation.

The premier has been the subject of countless investigations and several trials, all stemming from his business dealings as a billionaire media tycoon in the 1980s and early 1990s in Milan. He has either been acquitted or seen the statute of limitations expire, and has always maintained his innocence.

In the most recent cases, Berlusconi is accused of bribing British lawyer David Mills in order for him to lie in court in the 1990s to protect his interests. Mills was convicted in 2009 of having taken a $600 000 bribe, but the guilty verdict was overturned last year when Italy's highest criminal court ruled the statute of limitations had expired.

In the other trial, Berlusconi stands accused of tax fraud in the purchase of TV rights by his Mediaset broadcasting empire. An offshoot investigation wrapped up last year, and might lead to another indictment if the "legitimate impediment" law is overturned.

- AP


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