Billionaire former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi faced expulsion from the Senate yesterday, a result that would expose him to arrest with the loss of a lawmaker’s immunity he has held for almost 20 years.
The protection accorded to Italy’s 951 legislators has been the 77-year-old Berlusconi’s armor in what he describes as a two-decade battle against hostile prosecutors. Once out of parliament, judges could put him behind bars amid a corruption investigation in Naples. In the probe, Berlusconi is suspected of bribing senators to bring down former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi’s government in 2008. He was indicted last month.
“Do I fear arrest?” Berlusconi said on Tuesday in an interview with one of his Mediaset SpA television channels, according to excerpts posted on its Web site. “I don’t know. There is total hatred against me by the courts.”
The legal problems facing Berlusconi extend beyond the tax-fraud conviction that, after being upheld by the Supreme Court in August, prompted the expulsion process. He is appealing convictions for illegal use of wiretaps, abuse of power and engaging a minor in prostitution.
The vote was to be held after 7pm yesterday in Rome, and Berlusconi needed the support of 161 senators, out of the 321 in the chamber, to keep his seat. Berlusconi might fall short as Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party (PD) teams with opposition groups SEL and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement to vote him out. Those three parties have 165 Senators among them.
“Berlusconi’s fate appears to be sealed,” Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst with Teneo Intelligence, said in a research report on Monday. “The PD, Five Star Movement, Civic Choice and other smaller parties will align against him.”
Berlusconi’s predicament illustrates the power of what is typically a slow-moving Italian judicial system. Prosecutors, who often struggle to bring cases to completion within the statute of limitations, are permitted by law to request “preventive custody” before trials begin to guard against evidence tampering, flight or repeat offense.
More than 12,000 of the 64,323 people in prisons as of Oct. 31 had not been convicted of crimes, justice ministry data show. Parliamentary immunity protects lawmakers from preventative custody and any sentence that is not considered definitive, which typically comes only when appeals are exhausted by a verdict in the Supreme Court.
The possibility of arrest is “absurd” and “unrealistic,” Franco Coppi, a lawyer for Berlusconi said on Tuesday at a conference at Rome’s Foreign Press Association.
Berlusconi has denied all wrongdoing, saying his trials are the product of political vendettas.
Berlusconi, who was sentenced to four years in prison for the tax-fraud conviction, is unlikely to spend a day in jail for that penalty thanks to leniency provisions passed by him in 2005 and a mass pardon approved by Prodi in 2006.
He has applied for a year of community service in lieu of jail and remains free pending a court ruling.
Berlusconi was sentenced to seven years in prison for the abuse of power and prostitution case and one year for the wiretapping case. Those sentences are not expected to be applied unless they are upheld by appeals tribunals and the Supreme Court. The wiretapping case is unlikely to get that because of the statute of limitations.