Berlusconi backs down on corruption suspects

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The Independent Online
SILVIO BERLUSCONI, the Italian Prime Minister, was forced yesterday to perform a humiliating about-face to save his coalition government, withdrawing an emergency decree that would have hamstrung corruption investigations.

His spokesman, Giuliano Ferrara, announced that the government had decided to drop the decree passed last week under which magistrates pursuing suspects through the morass of Italy's Tangentopoli (Bribesville) investigations would have been stripped of the power to order the preventive detention of suspects.

The government is to replace the decree with modified draft legislation also aimed at curbing the magistrates' powers to imprison suspects before trial, but explicitly retaining the power to remand corruption suspects.

'This decision has pained me, but I have to hold the flag high and submit to the majority,' Mr Berlusconi told reporters after a cabinet meeting. He said he was 'hurt and embittered' by insinuations that his decree had been a ploy to favour 'this or that person, or even an individual who is residing abroad' - a reference to his friend Bettino Craxi, the disgraced former Socialist prime minister who fled to Tunisia.

'All parties are agreed on the principle of safeguarding civil liberties . . . The most important goal of the draft law must be to stop preventive custody being a premature punishment, and to restore the balance of the relationship between defence and prosecution,' said Alfredo Biondi, the Justice Minister, who, with his Prime Minister, had justified the decree on the grounds of improving Italian civil liberties.

More than 1,000 people on remand have already been freed from prison as a consequence of the decree. They include several leading suspects in the graft scandal, including the former health minister, Francesco De Lorenzo.

The climbdown in the face of public outrage at what was seen as an attempt to whitewash the sordid activities of Italy's old governing class represents a damaging defeat for Mr Berlusconi's government. 'Berlusconi hit his head against a wall, and was defeated by the whole country and the judges whose hands they wanted to tie,' Armando Cossutta, leader of the Communist Refoundation party, said at a rally in Rome. 'His image is not what it was before.'

The Prime Minister had become increasingly isolated as his coalition partners, the Northern League and the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance, dissociated themselves from the emergency decree. Roberto Maroni, the Northern League Interior Minister, offered to resign at the weekend after claiming that he had been tricked into signing it. Another embarrassment for Mr Berlusconi was the resignation of the entire anti-corruption team of Milan magistrates last week.

Newspaper commentators throughout Italy mused over what had led the hitherto astute Prime Minister to stumble so badly. As credible a theory as any was that Mr Berlusconi, whose past popularity was bolstered by the ownership of Italy's premier football team, AC Milan, was counting on a victory in the World Cup to produce the sort of 'feel-good' factor that would have given him an easy ride with the public. After all, his team carried off the European Cup just after his election and seven of its players formed the backbone of the national squad. Even his party's name, Forza Italia (Come on, Italy), was taken from the football terraces.

Both on and off the pitch, the events of the past few days have proved that he cannot count on things always going his way.

Golden boy's feet of clay, page 8