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Call to uphold PM’s immunity

October 7, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Oct 7, 2009

Lawyers representing Silvio Berlusconi yesterday urged Italy’s constitutional court to uphold a law giving the prime minister immunity from prosecution as speculation mounted that his centre-right government would try to call early elections should the ruling go against them.

As the 15 judges continued deliberating into the evening it was not clear whether they would reach a decision on the constitutionality of the immunity law within the day or postpone a ruling until next week.

One of Mr Berlusconi’s first acts after winning his third election in April, 2008, was to have parliament pass a law granting immunity to the four top holders of state office. Two corruption trials involving Mr Berlusconi in Milan were suspended as a result.

The 73-year-old billionaire media mogul reacted furiously on Monday when a judge in a civil case in Milan held him “co-responsible” for a bribe paid to a judge in 1991 and ordered Fininvest, his media holding company, to pay 750m euros in damages in a case brought by Carlo de Benedetti, a business rival. Related charges in a criminal case against Mr Berlusconi were dropped in 2007.

Senior members of Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party said the Milan ruling was part of a “subversive plan” to thwart the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box. Mr Berlusconi said it was a “legal outrage”.

Aides to Mr Berlusconi expressed confidence that the constitutional court would uphold the immunity law. They have indicated the government would fight on regardless.

“Italians gave a large majority to this government,” Altero Matteoli, minister of infrastructure, said. “He is the only prime minister in the world with such a high approval rating in this financial crisis.”

Mr Berlusconi had made no comment by yesterday evening. On Monday, in reaction to the Milan civil case, he insisted he would serve out his full term until 2013. Close associates have also ruled out early elections.

But with opinion polls giving Mr Berlusconi’s coalition a sizeable lead over a divided centre-left opposition – despite months of media exposure over his alleged sex scandals — commentators have speculated that the prime minister might go back to the polls should he lose his immunity.

Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, a key coalition ally, said he was ready for early elections.

However, Francesco Cossiga, former president, said he believed Giorgio Napolitano, president, would try to put in place an interim executive.

Asked by the daily Corriere della Sera who might step in as prime minister, Mr Cossiga said Mario Draghi, central bank governor, was “dying to do it”.

In 2004 the constitutional court rejected an amnesty law passed by Mr Berlusconi’s previous government. His lawyers insist the new law took into consideration the court’s previous ruling. Without temporary immunity, they said, the prime minister could not function.

Experts suggested the court might require that the immunity law be passed with a two-thirds parliamentary majority instead of the simple majority it had. This would be problematic for the government.

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