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Top court throws out Berlusconi immunity law

Video by Claire PRYDE , FRANCE 2

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-10-08

Italy's constitutional court has ruled that a law protecting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other top officials from prosecution violates the constitution. Berlusconi vowed to stay on, slamming a "political" decision by a "left-wing" court.

Italy's constitutional court ruled on Wednesday that a law protecting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other top officials from prosecution violates the constitution, prompting calls from opposition leaders for the premier's resignation.

Berlusconi reacted angrily to the announcement, slamming a "politically motivated" decision by a "left-wing" court and vowing to stay on. In a characteristic rant before a host of Italian and foreign journalists, he accused the country's judges, its president, the press and TV channels -- most of which he owns or indirectly controls -- of siding with the left.

The court’s decision, which could pave the way for the resumption of corruption trials involving Berlusconi, deals a stinging blow to the 73-year-old media mogul, who is already embroiled in a series of sex scandals.

FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Rome, Alexis Masciarelli, says two pending trials, in which Berlusconi faces charges of corruption and tax evasion, could “in theory start as soon as tomorrow”. Though the premier is unlikely to step down, he had warned on Tuesday that a negative verdict “would no doubt affect his ability to govern the country”, Masciarelli said.

‘First above equals’

After a two-day session closely followed by media around the world, the 15-member panel ruled that the so-called Alfano law violated the constitutional guarantee of equality before the law.

The law, approved just weeks after Berlusconi swept to power for the third time last spring, shielded the holders of Italy's four top political jobs -- prime minister, president and the speakers of the two houses of parliament -- from prosecution while in office.

On Tuesday, Berlusconi’s lawyer Gaetano Pecorella had struck an oddly Orwellian note as he sought to justify the bill, arguing that the prime minister should not be considered “first among equals” but rather “first above equals”.

Opposition leader Dario Franceschini said the ruling "reestablished the principle of equality of all citizens before the law. We are all equal before the law, including the powerful."

A political career plagued by court cases

The appeal to Italy’s constitutional court was launched by prosecutors investigating cases of corruption allegedly involving the Italian premier, one of which includes Berlusconi’s former tax lawyer, Briton David Mills.

Berlusconi is accused of paying Mills 400,000 euros to give false evidence in two trials in the 1990s. Mills was convicted in February of accepting the payment in a ruling that he is appealing.

Earlier this week, an Italian judge also ruled Berlusconi “jointly responsible” for corruption by his family holding, Fininvest, in a 1990s battle to buy publisher Mondadori.

Since he burst onto the political scene in the mid-1990s, the media tycoon has faced an array of charges including corruption, tax fraud, false accounting and illegally financing political parties.

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

Date created : 2009-10-07