Euro job saves Berlusconi ally from trial

Peter Popham
Thursday 17 June 2004 00:00
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Italy is to send a close associate of Silvio Berlusconi who is on trial for "Mafia association" to be a new Italian delegate at the Council of Europe, a move which will shelter him from the verdicts of Italian courts.

Italy is to send a close associate of Silvio Berlusconi who is on trial for "Mafia association" to be a new Italian delegate at the Council of Europe, a move which will shelter him from the verdicts of Italian courts.

The case in Palermo against Marcello dell'Utri, a senator in Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party and former head of his advertising company Publitalia, is close to its conclusion.

Last week the public prosecutor called for the Sicilian businessman-turned-politician to be given a prison sentence of 11 and a half years. But by going to Strasbourg to join the Council of Europe, which has 45 member states, Dell'Utri will automatically enjoy immunity from legal processes. The privilege is enshrined in article 15 of the Union's general agreement, signed in Paris in 1949.

Dell'Utri will thus escape a verdict in the case which could be only a few weeks away. Once his position in the Council of Europe is confirmed, any and all legal cases against him will be frozen.

The Mafia case is only one of the fronts on which Dell'Utri has been fighting. He has already been sentenced to 18 months' jail for accounting fraud, and on 27 April was given a two-year prison sentence for attempted extortion.

Yet another criminal case, this one in Spain and levelled at both Dell'Utri and Mr Berlusconi himself, has been suspended.

At the Mafia trial in Palermo last week, the public prosecutor Antonio Ingroia told the court: "I have a dream: the dream of the prosecutor of Palermo is that in the application of the law and in the decision on sentencing, the principle of equality before the law be always applied."

Comparing Dell'Utri's case to the "maxi-trial" of Mafia bosses in the 1980s which sent many of them to prison permanently, and which thereby "buried the myth that bosses were untouchable", he said the case against Dell'Utri brought together "such a mass of evidence ... that it would be difficult for people to understand an acquittal."

But now Mr Berlusconi's parliament has shown what a simple matter it is for politics to triumph over justice.

The announcement of Dell'Utri's appointment was made by the senate's respected, low-key Speaker, Marcello Pera, on a sleepy afternoon when a thinly attended senate was listening to the Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, expatiate on the negotiations taking place on the new European Constitution. No vote on Dell'Utri's appointment was required or taken.

The opposition did not even raise a squeak. "We've seen worse than this," muttered Giuseppe Ayala, a member of the centre-left Olive Tree group and a former magistrate in Sicily. "We're used to it."

It is not yet clear whether Dell'Utri will reach Strasbourg in time to participate in the council's deliberations on 24 June. Subject for debate: Silvio Berlusconi's "unprecedented control over the most powerful medium of communication."

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