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Berlusconi granted immunity from prosecution

Latest update : 2008-07-23

The Italian parliament approved a law on Tuesday giving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi immunity from prosecution, a victory for the conservative billionaire who has long complained of being hounded by "biased" prosecutors.

Italy's Senate on Tuesday passed into law a bill that effectively grants Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi immunity from prosecution during his time in office, the ANSA news agency reported.

The law grants political immunity to the incumbents of Italy's four most powerful positions: the posts of prime minister, president and the speakers of the two parliamentary chambers.

It was approved by 171 votes to 128 against, with six abstentions, ANSA reported.

Italy's lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, approved the bill earlier this month.

The most immediate beneficiary of the law is Berlusconi, who had been facing trial on a charge of having paid his British lawyer David Mills, 600,000 dollars (380,000 euros) to give favourable testimony in two trials.

The pair, along with a dozen other defendants, were on trial in Milan for tax fraud in the purchase of film rights in the United States by Mediaset, the television group owned by the Berlusconi family.

Berlusconi, 71, has repeatedly accused magistrates, notably in his native Milan, of conducting a politically motivated campaign against him.

He was elected to a third stint as prime minister in April, but this time his coalition had a strong enough majority to pass the controversial proposals, which he had tried unsuccessfully to usher in during previous times in office.

Earlier Tuesday Justice Minister Angiolino Alfano had defended the then bill in a speech to the Senate just hours before the final vote.

"To critics who have called into question the speed with which this law has been presented... I say that this law is not premature, nor too late, it is right," said Alfano, in comments reported by ANSA.

The immunity law had been vigorously opposed both by magistrates and much of the left-wing opposition.

It is one of the measures that Berlusconi's critics said were designed to protect him from the corruption trials that have pursued him for many years.

Berlusconi, a self-made billionaire, has faced charges including corruption, tax fraud, false accounting and illegally financing political parties.

Although some initial judgments have gone against him he has never been definitively convicted.

The media magnate's battles with the law have been a frequent accompaniment of his public life since he burst onto the political scene in the mid-1990s.

Under the law, any statute of limitations applying to a case would be suspended until the defendant left office.

But the immunity could not apply in the case of a politician moving from one of the four posts to another.

Berlusconi plans further reforms of the judiciary for the autumn. He says they are designed to speed up the notoriously slow progress of legal cases through the courts.

But he also wants to curb what he sees as the excessive powers of the magistrates.

The current independence of Italy's magistrates dates back to the post-war era, when a strong court system was seen as a bulwark against a repeat of fascism.

Date created : 2008-07-22