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Berlusconi clears path for judicial reform

November 11, 2009

by Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: November 11 2009

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s centre-right prime minister, on Tuesday reached an agreement with a key ally on judicial reforms that opposition politicians feared were designed primarily to terminate two trials pending against the billionaire media magnate.

Mr Berlusconi met Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the lower house of parliament, to discuss the reforms. Some newspapers, including one owned by the Berlusconi family, had portrayed the encounter as a make-or-break moment with the prime minister set to threaten to drive Mr Fini out of their People of Liberty party and call new elections unless he agreed to support legislation that would end Mr Berlusconi’s legal problems.

The constitutional court last month stripped Mr Berlusconi of his immunity from prosecution, granted by parliament last year, leading the prime minister to seek other avenues to block judges he has repeatedly denounced as politically motivated.

Mr Fini, a possible heir to the 73-year-old premier, had refused to back legislation that would reduce the statute of limitations and time limits for the two corruption trials involving Mr Berlusconi. But Mr Fini confirmed after their talks that they had agreed to put forward legislation soon that would limit some trials – including the two stages of appeal allowed – to six years in total.

Opposition politicians accused Mr Berlusconi of trying to pass tailor-made laws. Antonio Pietro, a former anti-corruption magistrate and leader of the Italy of Values party, called it a “criminal game”.

But in the absence of details of the proposed legislation it was not immediately clear whether the six-year limit would save Mr Berlusconi from the courts.

An aide to Mr Berlusconi told the Financial Times that the prime minister was preparing to defend himself in court as he had publicly promised. But the aide also noted that government engagements would prevent him from attending some court appointments.

Mr Berlusconi’s lawyers have already told a Milan court that he would not be able to attend a hearing on November 16 because of a UN food summit in Rome.

Mr Berlusconi is a co-accused in a case involving alleged tax and accounting fraud by Mediaset, his television company, in its acquisition of US film and television rights. The prime minister denies the charges.

A legal source said that if the six-year limit was broken down into three periods of two years – for the initial trial and two stages of appeal – then the Mediaset trial would be timed out later this month.

In the other case, Mr Berlusconi is accused of bribing David Mills, his former UK lawyer, to give false testimony to protect the prime minister’s Fininvest holding company. Mr Berlusconi denies the charges. Mr Mills, who was sentenced to four and a half years in jail in the same case last February, lost the first stage of his appeal against the conviction last month. He intends to take his appeal to a third and final court.

Mr Berlusconi’s trial in that case is to start from the beginning again with new judges, rather than resume from the point where it broke off when he was given immunity.

The judges are due to meet on November 27 to set a start date.

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