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Berlusconi dealt blow to legal shield

January 13, 2011

by Guy Dinmore in Rome, published: January 13 2011

Silvio Berlusconi faces the possible resumption of trials on charges of corruption and tax fraud after a court made it harder for him to claim he was too busy to appear in court, which had the effect of freezing the trials.

The prospect of the Italian prime minister facing a renewed battle with what he regards as a politically biased judiciary is likely to further weaken his coalition, which lost an absolute majority in parliament last month.

Just hours before the Constitutional Court released its decision on Thursday, the centre-right government insisted it would keep going and would not seek snap elections, whatever the verdict.

The judges ruled by 12 votes to three that two elements of a law passed last year that gave the prime minister and his cabinet the right to avoid appearing in court because of their official duties were unconstitutional.

Mr Berlusconi’s government passed the law hurriedly after the court had thrown out legislation giving him immunity while in office.

Under Thursday’s ruling, the judges involved in the relevant trials will decide on the merit of any excuse Mr Berlusconi may offer for not appearing in court.

So the prime minister could be subjected to the renewal of two separate trials in Milan involving his Mediaset business empire. Both could fail to run their course because of the time elapsed since the alleged offences were committed.

The billionaire media owner is accused of bribing David Mills, his former UK lawyer, to commit perjury, while in the second case he is accused of tax fraud in the purchase of film rights. A third case involving accusations of tax fraud is in the preliminary stage.

Mr Berlusconi, 74, denies all charges. His coalition survived by three votes a parliamentary motion of no confidence brought against it by party rebels and the opposition last month.

La Repubblica, a newspaper critical of the government, commented that Mr Berlusconi was in little danger of facing jail time as the cases against him were likely to expire under the statute of limitations. But it suggested that the Mills case in particular could damage the tycoon-politician.

Mr Mills was found guilty by a court of first instance and later an appeals court of taking a $600,000 bribe from Mr Berlusconi in order to give false testimony on his behalf in 198. Mr Mills denied the charges. Italy’s top appeals court of Cassation threw out the case against him under the statute of limitations last February but did not exonerate him.

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