Italy's Constitutional Court has partially rejected a law giving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and cabinet ministers immunity from prosecution, handing judges the power to decide whether the prime minister should appear in court.
REUTERS - Italy's constitutional court ruled on Thursday that a law which has protected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from prosecution for corruption and fraud was partially invalid and judges could order him to stand trial.
The court ruled in a statement that the law, which allows cabinet ministers including Berlusconi to claim exemption from going to court because of their official duties, was not consistent in key points with the constitution.
The ruling by the 15-member court will further weaken the 74-year-old premier, who is battling to shore up his fragile centre-right government after scraping through a no-confidence vote last month.
In particular, the judges struck down the blanket exemption offered by the so-called "legitimate impediment" law and ruled that it would be up to individual trial judges to decide on a case-by-case basis whether ministers would have to face charges.
The ruling had been sought by judges in Milan, where Berlusconi faces three trials over alleged offences connected with his Mediaset broadcasting empire.
He is accused of bribing his lawyer David Mills to give false testimony and also faces charges of embezzlement and tax fraud in connection with the sale of television rights.
With his government clinging on to power after a split with former ally Gianfranco Fini last year, some commentators had speculated that an unfavourable decision could prompt a fresh crisis and bring early elections.
'No danger to government'
Before the decision, Berlusconi, who rejects the charges against him and says he is being targeted unfairly by politically motivated judges, brushed off any suggestion that the ruling could threaten his coalition administration.
"There is no danger to the stability of the government, whatever the outcome of the constitutional court's decision," he told reporters on Wednesday.
The government's main spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, dismissed a report in the newspaper La Repubblica that a rejection of the law by the court would immediately open an election campaign.
"That is absolutely not the case," he told La7 television.
"Italians want this government to continue going forward on the path of reforms now that the country is finally emerging from the global crisis."
Berlusconi, the billionaire owner of Italy's biggest private broadcaster, has been in conflict with judges since he launched his political career in 1994 and he says he has faced more than 100 different court cases.
His lawyers say the "legitimate impediment" law, which has effectively suspended any court dates until after October when it is due to expire, exists to enable him to carry out his duties without the distraction of legal battles.
The law, designed as a stopgap measure, was to be replaced by a permanent constitutional amendment but the plans were halted by Berlusconi's rift with Fini and a split in the ruling PDL party, which plunged the government into crisis last year.
Date created : 2011-01-13