Berlusconi faces new court date after legal defeat

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The Independent Online

The Italian Premier, Silvio Berlusconi, is set to be hauled back to court on tax evasion and bribery charges after losing the latest battle in his struggle with the country's judiciary.

The Constitutional Court in Rome decided yesterday afternoon to throw out key parts of Mr Berlusconi's latest immunity law, which shielded the 74-year-old billionaire from prosecution.

The temporary "Legitimate Impediment" legislation has allowed ministers to avoid court appearances by claiming they obstruct government business. As a result, two trials against Mr Berlusconi have been suspended.

But judges in the Constitutional Court defied the Prime Minister, as they have done on two previous occasions when scrutinising controversial legal immunity, and quashed key parts of the law after a day-long deliberation. Yesterday's ruling effectively gives individual trial judges the power to decide whether or not the media mogul premier should face legal proceedings.

The Constitutional Court rejected two similar laws introduced by Mr Berlusconi in 2004 and 2009, citing an article in the constitution stating that all citizens must be treated equally under the law.

In one of the two trials set to resume, Mr Berlusconi is accused of bribing David Mills, the estranged lawyer husband of the former Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, with $600,000 to lie under oath about the premier's tax affairs. Mills was sentenced in February 2009 to four and a half years in jail for accepting a bribe from Berlusconi. Criminal charges against Mills were thrown out only in February of last year when time for an appeal expired under the statute of limitations. Civil charges against him were upheld, however. Mr Berlusconi also faces charges of tax fraud in purchasing film rights for his television company Mediaset. Two Milan magistrates, Sergio Spadaro and Fabio de Pasquale, claim that since the 1980s, Mr Berlusconi's holding company, Fininvest, and subsequently his broadcast group Mediaset, have registered inflated costs for the purchase of US film rights, in order to divert millions of euros to slush funds in Switzerland and Hong Kong.

The premier denies any wrong-doing, and has described himself the "most persecuted man in all of history". He blames a political vendetta against him by left-wing magistrates. On Wednesday this week, he again attacked Italy's judiciary, calling it "an illness".

But the Corriere della Sera newspaper said yesterday that quashing the immunity law would have little effect as the trials have been delayed for so long that they would probably run out of time under the statute of limitations.

However, another investigation, called the Mediatrade probe, which follows on from the Mediaset film rights trial, is likely to see fresh tax fraud charges being brought against the Prime Minister and senior Mediaset managers. More time would be available for these charges to be heard.

Mr Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo' Ghedini, argued that the full impact of the ruling would only be understood when the Court issued its reasoning, in a month or so. Anticipating a setback, Mr Berlusconi had said the day before: "It really does not matter to me whether these trials are stopped or not."