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Berlusconi trial freeze unconstitutional, say magistrates

Latest update : 2008-06-23

The Italian Higher Council of Magistracy will debate Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's attempt to put thousands of trials on ice -including his own- and should declare the measure unconstitutional.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's attempt to put thousands of trials on ice -- including one involving himself -- is likely unconstitutional, according to legal advice prepared for the governing body for Italy's judges, a report said Saturday.

The Higher Council of the Magistracy (CSM) is to discuss that view on Monday, the domestic ANSA news agency reported, adding to tension between Italy's judiciary and the conservative media tycoon turned politician.

In a legal amendment that was passed by the Senate on Wednesday, court cases involving serious offences punishable by more than 10 years in prison would get priority handling in the Italian judicial system.

Other cases would be suspended for a year -- including one in Milan in which Berlusconi is accused of having given 600,000 dollars (380,000 euros) to his British lawyer David Mills in exchange for false testimony in two cases dating back to the 1990s.

Judge Nicoletta Gandus -- who has drawn flak from Berlusconi for "publicly taking positions violently opposed" to his previous 2001-2006 government -- ruled Friday that proceedings in the case would not be halted.

In the opinion of two rapporteurs for the CSM, suspending trials would be "potentially incompatible" with the constitution on two points -- the right to a reasonable duration of trial and the principle of equality among citizens.

They also questioned the manner in which the amendment was put forward, tacked onto broader legislation dealing with security issues, ANSA reported.

Those in Europe who have criticised the traditional slow pace of Italian justice "will not understand such a measure which would, in effect, prolong cases for even longer," the legal opinion said.

On Wednesday, the union representing Italy's magistrates estimated that 100,000 court cases would be postponed if the amendment -- dubbed "save the prime minister" by Italy's political oppositon -- goes ahead.

"This is going to bring criminal justice to its knees. It will be unprecedented chaos," said Giuseppe Cascini, general secretary of the ANM union.

The amendment still must go through Italy's lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, before it can come into effect -- but Berlusconi's government enjoys an overall majority there.

Once adopted, Berlusconi intends to put forward legislation giving judicial immunity to the five most senior figures in the Italian state -- effectively enabling him to avoid conviction during his five-year mandate.

Date created : 2008-06-23