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Fed-Up Italians Rally Against Prime Minister

Europe: Demonstrators decry what they say is Berlusconi's rewriting of laws to protect himself.


ROME — About 200,000 people rallied in one of Rome's biggest squares Saturday to blast Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for what the protesters view as his rewriting of Italian laws to save himself from criminal punishment on corruption charges.

Demonstrators of all ages, gathered in a festive atmosphere on a perfect sunny day, also charged that Berlusconi, the country's richest man, has used his dominance of Italian television to mislead much of the public and thereby escape serious political damage from his legal machinations.

"Italians voted for Berlusconi to follow a dream but instead awoke to a nightmare," film director Nanni Moretti, head of a group of prominent intellectual and cultural figures who organized the rally, declared to the balloon-festooned, banner-waving crowd.

"Berlusconi is not against democracy," Moretti said. "Democracy is something extraneous to him. He doesn't know what it is."

The billionaire politician is on trial in the northern city of Milan for allegedly bribing judges in the 1980s. He owns almost all major nationwide private television in Italy and, as head of government, can influence the state-owned networks. He has not yielded to critics who say his continued media ownership constitutes a conflict of interest with his political role, and he charges that Milan judges and prosecutors are biased against him.

Saturday's event marked a new peak in what has been dubbed a "ring-around-the-rosie" campaign intended to ridicule Berlusconi and prod the regular political opposition into more effective action. The name originated from events earlier this year when protesters held hands and circled government buildings in demonstrations that mimicked the children's game.

In a sign of organizers' frustration with center-left politicians, none were invited to speak at the rally, although many said ahead of time that they would attend as ordinary participants. Police estimated the crowd at 180,000, but organizers said that was too low.

One of the banners at the protest showed an unhappy Berlusconi in a blue-and-white-striped prison uniform, holding a pick and standing before a pile of dirt, with a ball and chain on one leg. "Let's Let Him Work," the banner read.

The demonstration came as Berlusconi was in the United States to meet with President Bush about possible military action in Iraq. Although the protest focused on domestic issues, one poster urged: "Berlusconi!!! No War!!!"

Organizers said the rally, which also featured music performances, was the biggest spontaneous protest--one not led by politicians or unions--in Italy since the social and political upheavals of the late 1960s and early '70s.

Even as the protesters were gathering, a parliamentary committee approved the key bill provoking their anger. It would allow defendants to seek a change of court venue if there is a "legitimate suspicion" that judges are biased against them. The bill has already passed the Senate and could be approved by the lower house of Parliament within the next month. Berlusconi's center-right coalition has a majority in both houses.

Berlusconi is considered likely to use the law to have his trial moved from Milan. Even if the evidence against him is quite strong, as many of his critics believe, that could make it impossible for prosecutors to win a conviction before expiration of the statute of limitations. Critics charge that the law will have the additional effect of making it easier for Mafia chieftains to escape punishment.

Guido Dosso, 59, an architect and the organizer of about 400 protesters who rose before dawn to travel more than six hours by chartered bus from Verona, said he came to Rome mainly to protest the "legitimate suspicion" law. But he also criticized earlier legislation similarly seen as designed to get Berlusconi off the legal hook. Those laws decriminalized accounting fraud and made it harder for Italian courts to use evidence from other countries.

Many Berlusconi critics have expressed bitterness that Italy is easing up on accounting fraud at a time when conservatives in the United States, led by Bush, have urged a move in the opposite direction, to tougher penalties, in response to corporate scandals. This is often cited as evidence that Berlusconi is not a real conservative but simply looking out for himself.

Dosso said he saw no conflict between the festive mood of Saturday's demonstration and the seriousness of the protesters' charges against the prime minister.

"With laughter we will blow him away," he explained.

At the fringes of the mellow crowd, booths did a brisk business selling radical-themed T-shirts, with photos of Che Guevara or the word "Guerrilla" on a green background with a red star.

Andrea Marcocci, 33, a protester from Grosseto in Tuscany, wore a T-shirt that quoted a part of the Italian Constitution that includes the phrase "all people are equal before the law."

"I came for my son," Marcocci said, referring to a 2-year-old. "I hope that my son, through these demonstrations, won't find a worse world than I found, but rather one with more justice, and more trees."

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