Berlusconi offers new graft law

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The Independent Online
THE Italian cabinet yesterday agreed a modified draft law curbing magistrates' powers after the government was almost bought down over the issue earlier this week.

Under the new proposals, thrashed out during a day- long negotiating session between the coalition partners, the cases in which preventive detention could be ordered would be reduced. But investigators would still be allowed to apply for custody for corruption suspects. It was the removal of this power by an emergency decree last week which caused a national outcry and the resignation of the country's top anti-graft investigators in protest.

The draft law rules that the crime has to carry a sentence of at least four years before suspects can be held in jail.

The government is presenting the new draft as a necessary improvement in civil rights in Italy, where the current law allows magistrates to impose preventive detention in any case where they believe that suspects may tamper with evidence or flee the country. In future prosecutors will have to argue their request for custody. 'The new bill contains changes which take account of public opinion,' said Giuliano Ferrara, the cabinet spokesman.

The Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was forced to withdraw the emergency decree on Tuesday after his coalition partners rebelled. His use of a decree, temporarily bypassing parliament, gave rise to criticism that he was trying to protect corruption suspects - and possibly his own interests. Magistrates had begun probing his Fininvest business empire.

Yesterday the government tried to present a united front over the new bill, which it hopes to get passed by the middle of next month, after fierce internal rows over the decree. 'There was consensus on the part of all ministers over the legitimacy and collegiality of the decisions on both the (earlier) decree and the draft law on preventive custody,' said the Justice Minister, Alfredo Biondi. If true, this would be remarkable, given that only 24 hours earlier deputies of the two junior coalition partners, the Northern League and the National Alliance, were brawling on the floor of parliament over the issue.

Two opinion polls published yesterday, one for a magazine owned by Mr Berlusconi, and one for the left- wing opposition, indicated that the Prime Minister's popularity had suffered.