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Bill to Allow the Transfer of Trials Wins Passage in Italy

Critics call the measure a move to protect prime minister, embroiled in a corruption case.

November 06, 2002|David Holley and Maria De Cristofaro | Times Staff Writers

ROME — Italy's Parliament approved a bill Tuesday that critics charge is designed to save conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from criminal punishment on corruption charges.

Center-left lawmakers opposed to the measure shouted, "Thieves! Thieves!" as it moved toward passage. They then boycotted the final vote. The lower house of Parliament approved the bill Tuesday, 310 to 4, with one abstention. It had already passed the Senate.

Opponents organized evening protests that included distribution of leaflets urging President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi not to sign the bill. His signature, however, is widely expected.

"Today is a black page for Italian justice," said Francesco Rutelli, leader of the opposition Olive Tree coalition.

Berlusconi, a billionaire businessman-turned-politician, is on trial in the northern city of Milan for allegedly bribing judges in the 1980s when they were ruling on the sale of a state-owned food company.

His onetime business associate and former defense minister, Cesare Previti, faces a separate corruption trial in Milan on related charges. Previti is a lawmaker in the prime minister's Forza Italia party.

Both men deny the accusations, which they contend are politically motivated.

Supporters argue that the bill -- which allows defendants to seek a change of court venue if there is a "legitimate suspicion" that judges are biased against them -- aims to ensure fair trials.

Under the proposed law, trials would be suspended until a ruling is issued on a defendant's allegation of bias. If the claim is upheld, the trial would start again from the beginning in another court.

Lawyers for Berlusconi and Previti have said that they will use the legislation to try to shift the proceedings elsewhere. Success in that would cause delays that could make it impossible for prosecutors to win convictions before the statute of limitations expires.

Approval of the bill shows that Italy is a country "where it's possible to create laws, during ongoing legal processes, with the clear intent to save people who are under investigation," complained Marina Astrologo, one of the protest organizers. "This puts us as maybe more toward the level of a South American dictatorship than a civil and democratic country which is within a liberal Western world."

Italy's top magistrates body, the Superior Council of Magistrates, recently warned that the measure could weaken the fight against organized crime by allowing accused Mafiosi to seek changes of venue. The definition of "legitimate suspicion" of judicial bias was too vague, it said.

A somewhat similar "legitimate suspicion" rule allowing trial transfers was part of Italian law until a 1989 penal code reform. It was removed after complaints that it led to massive backlogs and allowed defendants to disrupt trial proceedings.

Critics argue that Berlusconi -- Italy's richest person and head of a vast media empire -- has used his dominance of Italian television to mislead much of the public and thereby escape serious political damage from his legal machinations.

The pro-Berlusconi majority in Parliament earlier pushed through other measures also seen by critics as designed to get the prime minister off the legal hook. Those pieces of legislation partly decriminalized false bookkeeping and reduced its statute of limitations, and made it harder for Italian courts to use evidence from other countries.

A panel of judges in Milan on Tuesday acquitted Berlusconi in a separate case of accounting fraud involving a soccer team he owns, ruling that under the new bookkeeping legislation the statute of limitations had expired.

Prosecutors had accused Berlusconi of falsifying the books of his soccer club, AC Milan, when registering the transfer of soccer star Gianluigi Lentini from another team. They charged that an under-the-table payment was made to the club that gave up Lentini.

Giuliano Ferrara -- editor of Il Foglio daily and widely seen as close to the prime minister -- said he believes that the new legislation is meant "to save Mr. Berlusconi from the judges" but that "the crusading judge" is a real Italian problem.

Sen. Tana de Zulueta, an opposition lawmaker, said Tuesday that Berlusconi and his government "got what they wanted" but "paid a very high price in terms of credibility."

"The notion that the legislation has been tailor-made to suit private interest has taken hold," she said.

A parliamentary group including De Zulueta, called the Law Is Equal for Everybody, organized a protest piano concert Tuesday evening in Piazza Navona, one of Rome's most picturesque squares.

The piano theme was chosen because when the Senate voted for the "legitimate suspicion" bill, about two dozen senators were caught on film casting not only their own ballots but also those of allied senators who were away from their seats. To do so, they worked two voting keyboards at once, one with each hand. They were quickly dubbed "pianists."

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Holley reported from Moscow and De Cristofaro from Rome.

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