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Immunity Bill Will Protect Italian Premier From Prosecution

Silvio Berlusconi's corruption trial is to be halted, and he may never face the charges again because of a statute of limitations.

June 19, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME -- Against rancorous but impotent opposition, the Italian Parliament on Wednesday granted immunity from prosecution to the country's top five officials, in effect liberating Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from an embarrassing corruption trial.

Berlusconi's right-wing coalition, which controls both the upper and lower houses of Parliament, sponsored the legislation and rushed it into the law books at an unusually swift pace.

The prime minister, who is also Italy's richest man, has been on trial in Milan on charges he bribed judges in the 1980s -- long before he entered politics -- to gain leverage in the corporate takeover of a food conglomerate. Berlusconi has denied wrongdoing, but he clearly wanted to be rid of the proceedings altogether.

Had the trial continued, a verdict probably would have been handed down during the six months that Italy will hold the rotating presidency of the European Union, a tenure that starts July 1. Many Italians felt that would have been particularly unseemly.

The law that passed Wednesday stipulates that the prime minister and four of the nation's other top officials cannot be prosecuted while they hold office.

The Milan trial will be halted, and because of a statute of limitations, Berlusconi may never face the charges again, analysts here said.

In a country awash in corruption scandals for decades, Berlusconi held the dubious distinction of becoming the first sitting prime minister in Italian history to go on trial as a criminal defendant. Opponents of the immunity legislation contended that it was unconstitutional and tailor-made for Berlusconi, and they accused the prime minister of putting himself outside the reach of justice.

"With this [bill], you leave us and all Italians in doubt," legislator Pierluigi Mantini of the center-left opposition Margherita (Daisy) party said during the daylong debate.

Proponents, however, said the bill protects top politicians from what Berlusconi maintains is a highly politicized judiciary controlled by the left.

"We aren't voting for a law that's tailor-made for a person," said Sandro Bondi, a legislator from Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go, Italy) party. The law, he said, "reinforces our democracy."

The lower Chamber of Deputies passed the bill by a huge margin -- 302 to 17 -- after most of the opposition walked out. The Senate passed the measure June 5, and the president must now sign it into law.

The prime minister will be immune until his term ends in 2006, unless his government collapses beforehand. The president, the leaders of both houses of parliament and the chief of the Constitutional Court will also be granted immunity.

Italian politicians enjoyed a general immunity for years until it was stripped in 1993 as part of an anti-corruption campaign that toppled many officials.

A public opinion poll published in May by La Repubblica newspaper showed that more than two-thirds of Italians opposed immunity for top officials. Nevertheless, only about 500 people showed up Wednesday evening to protest outside the Parliament building.

"I am here so that I can shout, 'Buffoon!' " said Eleonora Olivetto, a middle-aged demonstrator, mentioning one of the opposition's favorite epithets against Berlusconi.

Berlusconi had made a theatrical appearance before the Milan court Tuesday, his second in as many months, to defend himself against the corruption charges in what is now a 3-year-old trial. He argued that the case against him was like a murder trial "without a body, without a motive, without a weapon." The packed courtroom periodically erupted in cheers and boos, and the entire appearance was broadcast live on state television.

In his testimony, Berlusconi offered an argument that has resonance with many Italians: The spectacle of Italy's leader sitting in the dock tarred the national image.

"By throwing mud and [casting] shadows on the premier, one does so on the entire country," he said. "It's damaging the national pride and prestige."

He added that while all Italians are equal under the law, there are perhaps some, like himself, who are "more equal."

Maria De Cristofaro in The Times' Rome Bureau contributed to this report.

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