Thu, Jan 15, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Court strikes down Italian PM's immunity

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ROME

Dealing a potentially severe blow to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's highest court on Tuesday overturned a recently enacted law that shielded him from criminal prosecution while in office.

The Constitutional Court's decision allows the resumption of a bribery trial against Berlusconi that was halted when the law took effect in June last year and represents more bad news during an especially difficult period for Italy's often embattled leader.

It was also the second time in a month that watchdog officials in the Italian government essentially slapped his hand for overreaching, lending force to critics' complaints that he has tried to amass too much power.

Last month, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who usually performs a ceremonial role, took the unusual step of declining to sign into law a bill regarding media ownership that Berlusconi's allies had fashioned and supported.

That bill would have given Berlusconi, already a media magnate and Italy's richest man, an opportunity to expand his media empire.

"Berlusconi is appearing weaker and weaker," said Sebastiano Maffettone, a political science professor at Luiss University in Rome, after the court ruling.

Neither Maffettone nor other political analysts predicted that Berlusconi's center-right government was in danger of tumbling, as Italian governments so frequently do.

Berlusconi also does not seem to be in imminent legal danger. Legal experts said that a verdict in his bribery trial was still many months away at least and that he might find new ways to delay it even further.

The trial centers on charges, which the prime minister emphatically denies, that he bribed judges in the mid-1980s to influence the sale of a government-owned food conglomerate.

But the ruling on Tuesday elated and emboldened the prime minister's opponents on the center-left, who are sensing and poking at new chinks in his armor.

The immunity law that parliament passed in June protected the top five officials in the Italian government, including the prime minister.

Berlusconi and his allies noted at the time that the law resembled measures on the books in some other European countries and recreated in Italy a protection that Italian politicians had enjoyed in the past.

They also said the law was necessary in light of what they characterized as a politically motivated crusade against Berlusconi by Italian prosecutors and judges.

The law abruptly stopped a trial in Milan that was nearing its conclusion and which compelled Berlusconi to make several appearances in court late last spring. As he rebutted the bribery charges, he became the first sitting Italian prime minister to testify as a criminal defendant.

The immunity law was one of several judicial reforms enacted by parliament that served or stood to alleviate legal troubles that be-deviled Berlusconi and his political and business associates.

In striking down the measure on Tuesday, Italy's highest court said in a written statement that the protection violated a principle in Italy's Constitution that all Italian citizens should be equal before the law.

The statement by the court was characteristically brief and did not divulge any breakdown of the 15-member panel's vote.

Italian legal experts said that Berlusconi's bribery trial would probably resume in the next month or two, but that it would have to begin from the start rather than pick up precisely where it paused. That could easily delay a verdict until late in the year.

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