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Berlusconi wins immunity from prosecution

July 23, 2008

Published on the Financial Times on July 23, 2008

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s centre-right prime minister, has won a significant victory in his long-running battle with the courts by using his large parliamentary majority to pass a law giving himself immunity from prosecution.

His lawyer and fellow member of parliament, Niccolò Ghedini, said on Wednesday they would next decide whether to use the law to suspend the corruption trial against Mr Berlusconi and David Mills, his former UK lawyer. “Our intention was to halt the trial,” Mr Ghedini told the Financial Times. Mr Berlusconi had no immediate comment on his plans.

The Senate passed the bill by a wide margin late on Tuesday evening, giving immunity to Italy’s four top holders of political office. It enters into law once signed by the president and published in the official gazette.

Mr Berlusconi and his People of Freedom alliance argue that he needs to devote his attention to leading Italy out of its deep economic crisis rather than endure a time-wasting repeat of his last term in office fighting politically biased judges and prosecutors.

The 71-year-old premier recently described them as a “cancer” and suggested some were deranged. Italy would join the ranks of “normal” countries by adopting an immunity law, he said when introducing it.

“Those who have won the elections have a right to govern,” said Maurizio Gasparri, Senate leader of the ruling alliance. Many Italians would agree, and in a big swing to the right Mr Berlusconi decisively defeated the centre-left government in April’s elections.

Mr Berlusconi is accused of bribing Mr Mills, former husband of Tessa Jowell, the UK Olympics minister, with $600,000 (€380,000, £300,000) to give false testimony on his behalf in a case involving alleged secret accounts behind the prime minister’s media empire. Both men deny the charges.

Once the immunity bill becomes law, judges will have to decide whether to proceed with Mr Mills alone or suspend the whole trial until Mr Berlusconi is no longer prime minister. His term expires in 2013.

At least two other cases were pending against Mr Berlusconi in the Italian courts, one involving his television company, Mediaset, and a more recent investigation into whether he corrupted an editor with Rai, the state broadcaster.

Commentators say Giorgio Napolitano, the leftwing president, will reluctantly sign the immunity law. But it may be challenged by the Constitutional Court, which in 2004 threw out a similar law passed by the previous Berlusconi government.

With the centre-left opposition in parliament demoralised, the main challenge to Mr Berlusconi may rest with the trade unions and radical left parties, which are focused on resisting planned public sector spending cuts.

Angelino Alfano, the justice minister after whom the immunity law was named, said the government hoped to deal with an opposition “free of prejudice” to push through needed reforms of the judiciary.

Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-corruption magistrate and leader of the opposition Italy of Values party, said he would launch a referendum campaign against the immunity law.

The Senate late on Wednesday approved the government’s “security package”, which includes measures allowing deployment of 3,000 troops on urban crime patrols.

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