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Berlusconi launches reforms of judiciary

March 10, 2011

by Guy Dinmore and Giulia Segreti in Rome, Published: March 10 2011

Silvio Berlusconi, currently facing four trials on corruption and sex-related charges, has proposed sweeping reform of the judiciary to curb what he calls hostile political interference by leftist magistrates.

Preparing for a prolonged battle, magistrates and opposition leaders condemned the draft legislation agreed by the cabinet on Thursday, describing them as punitive measures driven by a desire for revenge and aimed at ­weakening judicial independence.

Although the proposals have no direct bearing on the beleaguered Italian prime minister’s current trials, they appear to have scant chance of success in the climate of hostility dominating Italian politics. The changes require the support of two-thirds of parliament, where Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition can barely muster an absolute majority – or, failing that, a national referendum.

Asked at a press conference how his proposals were influenced by his trial next month on charges of having sex with Karima El Mahroug, an alleged underage prostitute known as “Ruby Heartstealer”, the 74-year-old prime minister replied: “Absolutely zero.”

The billionaire, who is also charged with corruption and tax fraud relating to his media empire, reiterated his innocence in all cases and expressed confidence that he would be acquitted. He pledged to defend himself in court – a promise he has made repeatedly but not kept over the past three years.

His trial on charges of bribing his former UK lawyer, David Mills, to give false testimony is due to resume in Milan on Friday, but he will be absent as he is due to attend a European Union summit in Brussels.

According to diplomats and Italian officials, Mr Berlusconi’s determination to reform the judiciary, which is widely criticised in society for its slowness and expense, is in danger of becoming an obsession that is marginalising important government business.

One example cited is a telephone conversation between Mr Berlusconi and Barack Obama, US president, on February 24 to discuss Libya, which the prime minister began with a long tirade against the Italian judiciary.

Mr Berlusconi appeared on Thursday with half his face covered by a surgical plaster following an operation to his jaw resulting from an assault last year by a deranged man brandishing a souvenir model of Milan cathedral.

He said: “For the first time in the history of the Italian republic a complete, organic, clear and convincing text of a reform for the judicial system, in the interest of all citizens, has been presented.”

He argued that if the reforms had been enacted already then attempts to “eliminate the current government by judicial means” could not have happened.

The most controversial changes contained in 10 separate proposed laws would separate the careers of judges and prosecutors. The governing body of the magistracy would be split in two, with half its members chosen by parliament.

Parliament would also appoint half of a new body that would rule in disciplining magistrates. Judges accused of malpractice could be served lawsuits by aggrieved citizens.

It is not clear whether the government intends to abandon separate efforts to curb the powers of investigating magistrates to use phone-tapping, or to set limits on the length of trials that could have the effect of cancelling out Mr Berlusconi’s cases involving tax fraud and corruption.

The prime minister says he has spent millions of euros in his defence while no case has resulted in a final conviction after all stages of appeal.

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