Silvio uses his ninth life – but sets 2013 date for departure

Left raging as change to statute of limitations lets Berlusconi avoid comeuppance again
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The Independent Online

As Silvio Berlusconi's ever outraged political enemies reeled from the news that he had saved his bacon and possibly his liberty once more by forcing proposals through parliament that will protect him from a bribery prosecution, they could at least take consolation that the Italian premier has suggested he will finally stand down in two years.

Centre-left MPs shouted "shame" as Mr Berlusconi's centre-right coalition voted late on Wednesday to shorten the statute of limitations for some criminal cases – including crucially, the one in which the premier is accused of having paid British lawyer David Mills $600,000 (£370,000) to lie under oath.

But about 15,000 other trials may also be killed off prematurely and thousands of people denied justice, according to the body governing Italy's judiciary. Victim groups yelled abuse outside parliament while MPs voted.

But a jubilant Silvio Berlusconi hailed his renewed parliamentary strength following the vote: "We'll charge ahead like a train, with all the other reforms, beginning with those for justice," he said. "The left was a sorry spectacle."

Hours earlier, the Prime Minister, 74, had told a small group of foreign journalists he intended to step down in 2013 – and would like to pass the torch to the justice minister, Angelino Alfano, 40, who had guided the controversial legislation through parliament.

But Mr Berlusconi's wish to carry on for two more years is an indication of his remarkable resilience – and the parlous state of Italy's parliamentary democracy that has allowed him to continue, despite a combination of scandals and political stagnation that would almost certainly have sunk any other western leader 10 times over. He is involved in two other trials in which he faces charges for tax fraud, sex with a minor and abuse of office. He denies all the charges.

A further shadow was cast over Wednesday night's proceedings when it emerged that some opposition MPs, including possibly centre-left Democratic Party members, had voted for the controversial changes to the justice system. In the past six months as the charges of sleaze have piled up against Mr Berlusconi and his majority in the lower house has shrunk, the premier's parliamentary block has been accused of buying votes. It has denied this.

The law changes must return to the Senate for final approval, but the Prime Minister has a solid majority in the upper chamber.

Italo Bocchino, of the small, centre-right opposition FLI party, said after the vote: "It's tragic seeing the chamber blocked by the presence of all the ministers who are only there to stop the Mills trial." His colleague Benedetto Della Vedova said Mr Berlusconi's supporters had "humiliated parliament".

Even some of Mr Berlusconi's supporters in right-wing newspapers such as Libero said the law was designed to extricate the premier from the Mills case, while claiming it had been necessary because the magistrates were waging a vendetta against him.

Yesterday, during an official trip to Prague, Italy's head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, who theoretically has the power to veto legislation said: "I will evaluate it when we are nearer the moment in which it gains definitive parliamentary approval." Observers said yesterday that Mr Napolitano has generally sought to avoid confrontation with the Berlusconi government.

Luca Palamara, the President of the National Association of Magistrates said: "The vote is a defeat for the state. Those who will lose out are people who have suffered fraud or sexual violence, the families of victims of mass deaths and earthquakes."

Outside parliament families seeking justice for victims of disasters including the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake, hurled abuse as Berlusconi supporters entered the building to vote. One prominent Berlusconi-backer, Daniele Santanche, had coins flung at her – an insult traditionally reserved for thieves.

As a result of the changes, which will shave six months or more off the statute of limitations for various criminal offences, many charges of manslaughter relating to deficient construction and safety standards will probably expire.

Fabrizio Cicchitto, the leader of Mr Berlusconi's PDL party in the Chamber of Deputies, defended the vote. "This law is not a scandal because by now any intervention in the justice system is bound to affect Berlusconi who has been under a bombardment by the judiciary since 1994," he said.

Italy having a subversive, left-wing judiciary was a theme that Mr Berlusconi dwelt on yet again during his meeting with the foreign correspondents.

He also said he had no plans to become president but thought his right-hand man Gianni Letta would be ideal for the role. However, Mr Berlusconi indicated that he would be around to offer advice as an elder statesman.

What the change means

Victims and families of people killed in major disasters, including the L'Aquila earthquake in April 2009 and the train derailment and explosion in Viareggio in June 2009, led protests outside the Chamber of Deputies.

"Our children died because of a lack of regulation. The shortened statute of limitations means it won't be possible to have justice," said Antonietta Centofanti, who leads a group of families bereaved by the collapse of student lodging in L'Aquila.

Andrea Maccioni lost his sister, niece and nephew, when a gas container on a train exploded in Viareggio. "The only consolation that remained was that we might be able to find those responsible," he said. "Now they want to take away that from us, too."