Top court overturns Italian premier's immunity

Thursday, October 8, 2009

ROME -- Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi vowed to stay on and "go forward" Wednesday after an Italian court struck down a law granting him immunity from prosecution and allowed trials for corruption and tax fraud to resume in Milan. There were immediate calls for his resignation.

The decision by the Constitutional Court dealt Berlusconi one of the most serious blows in his 15-year battle with the Italian judiciary. It handed prosecutors another chance to ask for his conviction and added to a list of problems that already includes a headline-grabbing sex scandal.

The billionaire businessman-turned-politician dismissed any suggestion of resignation, and his conservative allies, who dominate parliament, quickly rallied to his support.

"Nothing will happen, we will go forward," the premier told reporters in front of his residence in Rome.

"The trials they will hurl at me in Milan are real farces," he said. "I will detract some hours from taking care of the government to go there and show them to be liars."

The ever-combative premier said he felt "invigorated" by the challenge.

Berlusconi, 73, continues to be popular in Italy, despite accusations from his wife that he has had inappropriate relationships with far younger women and allegations from a self-described call girl that he spent a night with her. The scandal erupted in the spring after his wife announced she was divorcing him.

Berlusconi says he is "no saint" but has denied ever paying anyone for sex or having any improper relationships.

The law overturned Wednesday was pushed through by Berlusconi's conservative coalition in 2008 when he faced separate trials in Milan for corruption and tax fraud tied to his Mediaset broadcasting empire.

It granted immunity from prosecution while in office to the country's four top office holders -- the premier, the president of the republic and the two parliament speakers.

The proceedings against Berlusconi were suspended as a result of the law, drawing accusations that it was tailor-made for the premier.

The corruption trial is particularly threatening because, in the meantime, the premier's co-defendant has been convicted of accepting a bribe to lie in court to protect Berlusconi in another case.

Still, even if convicted, the premier would not be obliged to resign and could simply appeal, as sentences in Italy are usually not served until all avenues of appeal are exhausted.

Berlusconi has denied all charges, and his lawyers had argued in court on Tuesday that he could not be a defendant and at the same time serve as premier.

But the 15-judge Constitutional Court, which deals with all matters regarding the constitutionality of Italian law, said that after two days of deliberations it had found the legislation violated the principle that all are equal before the law.

It also rejected the measure on formal grounds because it was not passed with the lengthy procedure that must be used for any legislation concerning the constitution.

The breakdown of the vote is not made public in Italy, but state and private Italian media reported, without citing sources, that the judges split nine to six.

"I hope that today, in light of the court's decision, the premier will stop making laws for his own use, resign from his job and be what he has resisted being for the past 15 years: the defendant," said Antonio di Pietro, a member of the opposition and a former prosecutor.

Berlusconi has a history of legal troubles stemming from his private interests, but he has been either acquitted or cleared because the statute of limitations had expired.

"If the law must be equal for all, then it should be equal also for those who represent us," said Claudio Paolini, a 34-year-old letter carrier in Rome. "The ruling followed Italy's principles of democracy."

Others sided with the premier, saying the decision was politically motivated and that leaders should have immunity while they are in office.

"The people elected Berlusconi and he should be left to govern in peace," said Brigitte Ipoletto, a 72-year-old retired woman.

In the Milan corruption trial, Berlusconi was accused of ordering the 1997 payment of at least $600,000 to British lawyer David Mills in exchange for the lawyer's false testimony at two hearings in other corruption cases in the 1990s.

Berlusconi's portion of the trial was frozen when the immunity bill was passed, but the proceedings continued for Mills. In February, he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 41/2 years in prison. Mills, the estranged husband of Britain's Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell, has maintained his innocence and said he would appeal.

Berlusconi faces the tax fraud charge in a trial over Mediaset's purchase of TV rights.

Just a few days ago, a judge in a different case handed down a devastating ruling against Berlusconi's holding company Fininvest.

The court ordered Fininvest to pay euro750 million ($1 billion) to a rival for its 1990s takeover of the Mondadori publishing house. Fininvest said the ruling is unjust and it will seek to suspend the judgment pending an appeal.

The civil damage award stems from a case in which three Berlusconi associates were convicted of corrupting a judge so he would overturn a ruling that had gone in favor of industrialist Carlo De Benedetti and against Berlusconi for control of Mondadori.

Through Fininvest, Berlusconi controls a vast media empire that includes Mediaset and Mondadori. As premier he also has influence on state broadcaster RAI -- a fact that has spawned conflict of interest accusations for years.

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