Berlusconi loses immunity

October 8, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome Published: October 8 2009

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, last night set the stage for an all-out confrontation with the country’s judiciary when he denounced the constitutional court as being dominated by left-wing judges after it stripped him of his immunity from prosecution.

Visibly agitated, Mr Berlusconi told reporters that he had no intention of resigning or calling a snap election.

He spoke within an hour of the court’s decision that a law passed by parliament last year granting him immunity was unconstitutional. The 15 judges of the constitutional court ruled by nine to six that the law breached the article of the constitution making all citizens equal before the law. Such a change, it said, would require a two-thirds majority in parliament, not the simple majority it received in June 2008.

Mr Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul, had been facing two trials on charges of corruption when the immunity law suspended the process. The constitutional court’s ruling paves the way for those trials to resume.

“Nothing happens. We will go on,” a defiant Mr Berlusconi said in Rome, accusing the court of being a “political body” and having 11 “left-wing” judges on its bench.

The government had argued that Mr Berlusconi could not run the country while hounded by the courts. Stripped of his immunity, commentators said, the 73-year-old prime minister risked being labelled a “lame duck” leader.

“Without Silvio the country would be in the hands of the left and you all know what would happen,” Mr Berlusconi declared. “The trials that they are going to throw against me are a farce. Long live Italy! Long live Berlusconi!”

One of the first acts of Mr Belusconi’s third government, elected last year, was to pass a law granting immunity to the four top holders of state office. At the time Mr Berlusconi was on trial in two cases – accused of bribing David Mills, his former UK lawyer, to lie in court to protect his Fininvest media empire, and accused of tax fraud and false accounting in the acquisition of television and film rights by Mediaset, his television company. Mr Berlusconi has denied wrongdoing. Mr Mills was convicted and has appealed.

Government aides stressed that Mr Berlusconi still had the support of the Italian people.

Leaders of the opposition centre-left Democratic party voiced relief at not having to fight an early election.

Opinion polls show Mr Berlusconi enjoying broad support despite the economic crisis and relentless exposure of left-leaning newspapers of his personal scandals that have led his wife, Veronica Lario, to ask for a divorce.

Mr Berlusconi also attacked television – he owns the three main private channels – newspapers and Giorgio Napolitano, the widely respected head of state, as being of the left.

Mr Napolitano, a former communist, said that he supported the constitution. “I’m not interested in his words,” Mr Berlusconi retorted.

Defending the constitutionality of the immunity law, Niccolo Ghedini, a lawyer for the prime minister, had told the court on Tuesday: “The law is equal for everyone but not necessarily its application.” Gaetano Pecorella, another defence lawyer, said: “The prime minister is not ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) but ‘primus super pares’ (first above equals).”

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