Berlusconi facing his 'parliamentary Vietnam' over bid to end prosecutions

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi's supporters in parliament were last night fighting to push through law changes widely seen as a cynical attempt to save the premier from a bribery conviction.

Outraged opposition MPs threatened a "parliamentary Vietnam", as they prepared to fight the plans to shorten the statute of limitations – a move that would lead to dozens of criminal trials being killed off and would allow the premier to walk free.

Mr Berlusconi is charged with paying the British lawyer David Mills $600,000 (£370,000) to lie on his behalf in a courtroom battle. Mr Mills, estranged husband of the former British Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, was found guilty of accepting $600,000 from the premier, but his four-and-a-half-year jail sentence was quashed last year because there was not time for his second appeal to be heard.

The new proposals would see trials timed-out more quickly for people such as the premier who do not have secure convictions. Mr Berlusconi, while found guilty of other crimes in lower courts, has been cleared on appeal or benefitted from the existing statute of limitations. Under the parliamentary proposal, the Mills bribery trial involving the premier would be killed off next month instead of in 2012.

The result of the voting process is not expected until late today, and the Prime Minister's lieutenants were making no predictions about the outcome. In theory, his coalition has a slim majority in the lower house, but its populist, right-wing Northern League ally has been reticent in supporting legislation that might be portrayed as an amnesty for criminals. Mr Berlusconi's supporters say the changes are needed to speed up the painfully slow course of Italian justice.

But the leading centre-right figure and house speaker, Gianfranco Fini, remarked: "If the law is supposed to be equal for all, then it really should be equal for everybody." And the Democratic Party leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, said: "This law is shameful because it will introduce a real amnesty."

Magistrates have warned that the proposals would end key prosecutions, including those relating to the Parmalat financial scandal, which saw thousands of Italians lose their savings, as well as the manslaughter trial resulting from the Viareggio rail fire of June 2009, which claimed 31 lives. In a bid to win over waverers, there were indications that the PdL might try to exclude trials relating to disasters from the proposals.

The opposition pledged to use every tactic at its disposal to block the changes.