Court strips Berlusconi of immunity in bribery case

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi is set to stand trial again on bribery charges after an Italian court ruled yesterday that a law granting prime ministers immunity from prosecution was unconstitutional.

The effect of the decision - a severe setback for the Italian premier - is to relaunch Mr Berlusconi's trial on corruption charges which was suspended last June after he rushed the hugely controversial law through parliament on the eve of Italy's six-month stint in the EU presidency.

It required the freezing of legal proceedings against the top five office-bearers of state, including the prime minister and president, for as long as they remained in office.

Mr Berlusconi, Italy's richest man and believed to be worth more than €10bn (£7bn), had been accused of bribing two Roman judges in the 1980s to block the takeover by one of Mr Berlusconi's rivals of SME, a state-owned food conglomerate about to be privatised.

At the time the law was passed, the bribery trial was approaching its conclusion, and many MPs felt it would be embarrassing for Italy to have the sitting president of the European Council on trial.

The opposition gave the bill a relatively easy ride, and President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi signed it into law. "It is not manifestly unconstitutional," he said at the time.

Yesterday the Italian Constitutional Court disagreed. After two days and two hours of discussion, they reached agreement. Law No.140 of 20 June 2003 was "illegitimate" because it contravened Articles 3 of the Constitution, the principle of equality, and Article 24, the principle of the right of defence. It must now be revoked, the court said.

Antonio Di Pietro, an anti-corruption prosecutor-turned-politician who collected millions of signatures in a bid to force a referendum on the immunity law, said: "The people of Italy and Europe must rejoice at this ruling, which affirms that no one is above the law, not even the Prime Minister."

Mr Berlusconi's co-defendants in the case, the judges accused of taking the bribe and Cesare Previti, Mr Berlusconi's lawyer, former minister of defence and parliamentary colleague, were found guilty of corruption and sentenced to imprisonment in the summer. They have appealed.

Mr Berlusconi will now stand trial all over again alone on the same charges with new judges and prosecutors. He has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that he is the victim of a political vendetta by left-leaning magistrates.

Despite the notorious sluggishness of Italian courts, there is hope that the trial could be wrapped up in record time, as so much of the spadework has already been done. Professor James Walston, a political scientist at the American University in Rome, said he believed the trial "would certainly reach a verdict within the year".

The Justice Department in Milan, which will be in charge of the trial, was yesterday of the view that most documents in the case could be re-admitted, though this is likely to be challenged by Mr Berlusconi's lawyers, keen once again to spin out proceedings.

If the new judges were to be of the same mind as their predecessors, Italy could find itself with a convicted criminal as Prime Minister. But even if that were to happen, it is unlikely he would go to prison, as he would undoubtedly appeal. And, as Professor Walston commented: "After all that has happened in the Berlusconi era, to have a Prime Minister found guilty of bribery might not even surprise us."

Tana de Zulueta, a senator with the Green party, said: "It's a breath of fresh air for the opposition. The law was a gross violation of constitutional principles. What was perceived by some as a face-saving device was rightly seen abroad as the last straw."