Italy’s lower house of parliament on Wednesday approved a reform bill that could cut the length of many trials, including a bribery case against embattled Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Hundreds of demonstrators protested outside the parliament, accusing Berlusconi of tailoring the law in his own interest and claiming that key cases would now be snuffed out.
The bill was approved by 314 votes for and 296 against. It will have to go to the senate for a final vote, where Berlusconi has a stronger majority than in the lower house.
If approved, the bill would limit the timespan of the verdict to within three years from the start of a trial in cases punishable by a prison sentence of 10 years or less. Older cases would be scrapped.
The amendment would wipe out a case in which Berlusconi is accused of paying former British lawyer David Mills US$600,000 to provide false testimony about his business dealings.
The trial, which had been temporarily suspended last year due to a short-lived immunity law approved by Berlusconi, is due to run until January or February next year.
If the bill is approved, it would bring the bribery trial to an abrupt end before sentencing.
The head of the Italian magistrate’s association, Luca Palamara, described the outcome as “a defeat for the state.”
Opposition parties have lashed out at the government’s claims that the bill — and the broader program it is part of — will bring about a much needed reform of the country’s doddering and dysfunctional judicial system.
“It’s up to us now to make people understand the disgrace of this measure, which shows absolute contempt for the country’s real problems,” said Pier Bersani, head of the opposition Democratic Party, according to Ansa news agency.
“It’s the umpteenth law to save Berlusconi from his trials,” said Antonio Di Pietro, head of the opposition Italy of Values party and one of Berlusconi’s most strident critics.
Protesters rallied outside parliament before the vote to campaign for justice for the 308 victims of the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila and the 29 people killed in a train accident in Viareggio the same year.
They said the reform could end trials linked to responsibility over the two disasters.
“I lost both my parents in the Viareggio accident,” 35-year-old protester Luca Bonuccelli said.
“If this law is passed, it will be as if they have been killed twice, because I will never get justice. I’m really angry and hold it against Berlusconi,” he said.
“The carriages were made by one foreign company, the rails by another. It is therefore taking a long time for the trial to come to a conclusion,” he said.
Residents from the badly damaged town of L’Aquila, where poor quality cement has been blamed for the collapse of hundreds of buildings including a student residence, held signs reading: “Murdered at the students’ house April 6, 2009.”
The government has insisted that only 0.2 percent of cases will be affected by the new law.
In related news, Berlusconi has named a Sicilian minister as his likely successor. Speaking to foreign correspondents at a dinner on Tuesday night, Berlusconi said he would not stand at the next general election in 2013 and indicated that 40-year-old Justice Minister Angelino Alfano was the person to whom he intended entrusting his party.
The dinner was held on an off-the-record basis, but a detailed account of the proceedings was leaked to Ansa and pubished early on Wednesday. Additional reports appeared subsequently in the Italian media.