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Berlusconi wins 'get out of jail free' card

Latest update : 2008-07-11

Italy's lower house of parliament approved a contentious bill Thursday granting legal immunity to the top leaders of the country while in office, giving relief to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who had previously faced corruption charges.

Italy's lower house of parliament on Thursday approved a bill to grant immunity to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, veteran of a series of corruption trials connected to his media empire.
  
After an ill-tempered debate, the bill passed easily by 309 to 236, with 30 abstentions in the Chamber of Deputies.
  
Berlusconi, 71, elected to a third stint as prime minister in April, has repeatedly accused magistrates, notably in his native Milan, of conducting a witchhunt against him.
  
The bill gives legal immunity from prosecution to the president, prime minister and the speakers of the two chambers of parliament from prosecution while in office, and is now expected to become law in record time when it advances to the Senate in late July.
  
The immunity law -- vigorously opposed by judges and much of the left-wing opposition -- is one of various pieces of legislation seen by Italian commentators as designed to protect Berlusconi from corruption trials.
  
Under the law, any statute of limitations applying to a case will be suspended until the defendant leaves office.
  
The bill's author, Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, hailed the result saying it was a "response to the need of those in the highest positions of state to work in serenity."
  
Antionio di Pietro, former anti-coruption judge and now head of the small Italy of Values party, said during the debate that Berlusconi was "turning parliament into a special magistrate obliged to issue a special acquittal."
  
Opposition leader Walter Veltroni, whose Democratic Party voted against the bill, commented last month that "Berlusconi is in a big hurry on these matters," while the billionaire's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said the prime minister was "under constant attacks by judges."
  
"By the end of the month, Berlusconi can relax, immunity will become law and his legal affairs will be frozen," the left-leaning daily La Repubblica remarked ahead of the vote. "He can even be magnanimous with the magistrates and the opposition."
  
Berlusconi, a self-made billionaire, has faced charges including corruption, tax fraud, false accounting and illegally financing political parties, but he has never been definitively convicted.
  
On Tuesday, tens of thousands of protesters filled Rome's Piazza Navona to protest the moves, which also include massive cuts to the judiciary in the 2009 budget and has prompted judges to threaten a strike.
  
The rally was called jointly by di Pietro, who spearheaded the "Cleans Hands" anti-corruption probe of the early 1990s, and prominent magazine editor and philoospher Paolo Flores D'Arcais.
  
The legislation is now expected sail through parliament, where Berlusconi enjoys a comfortable majority following mid-April elections that returned him to power for a third time since 1994.
  
On Friday parliamentarians will vote on a bill to suspend thousands of trials for a year as a means of speeding Italy's notoriously slow justice system for the most serious cases languishing on the books.
  
That law would keep the media tycoon out of the dock this month in a trial on charges of giving 600,000 dollars (380,000 euros) to his British lawyer David Mills in exchange for giving false testimony.
  
Berlusconi is also seeking strict curbs on the use of wiretaps in judicial investigations and stiffer penalties for the publication of their transcripts.
  
The prime minister, himself a target of wiretaps that have implicated him in corruption scandals, won his government's approval of a draft law that restricts the use of electronic spying to cases involving crimes punishable by more than 10 years. The previous threshold was five years.
  
The 10-year rule will have several exceptions, notably in cases of corruption, human trafficking and child pornography.

Date created : 2008-07-11

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