Legality of Italian premier's immunity considered

Legality of Italian premier's immunity considered

A top Italian court began deliberating Tuesday whether a law granting Premier Silvio Berlusconi and other top officials immunity from prosecution is constitutional, a decision that could determine the survival of his government, AP reported.

The opposition has said early elections may be necessary if the Constitutional Court rules against Berlusconi, since he might have to resign under political pressure. His allies have said they'll stand firm behind him regardless of what the court determines.

Berlusconi, a billionaire businessman-turned politician who has a history of legal troubles stemming from his private interests, said this week that "nothing will make us betray the mandate that Italians have given us."

Berlusconi's conservative allies spearheaded the immunity bill through Parliament last year, granting the premier, the Italian president and speakers of Parliament immunity from prosecution while in office.

Supporters said the law was necessary to spare Italy's top office-holders from politically-motivated persecution. Critics said it was tailor-made to spare Berlusconi from trial.

At the time the law was passed, Berlusconi was on trial in Milan, accused of corruption for allegedly bribing a lawyer for false testimony.

The trial was suspended, pending review by the court. If it determines the law is unconstitutional, the Milan proceedings presumably could resume, raising the prospect of having an elected leader on trial.

Berlusconi has denied the corruption charges. His lawyers, though, have raised the prospect that he might have to resign if the court rules against him, since he would be unable to do his job.

But a ruling in Berlusconi's favor would strengthen his government at a time when it has been under attack because of the premier's personal problems, including a sex scandal that has dominated headlines for months.

Berlusconi attorney Niccolo Ghedini argued before the court that while all Italians are equal under the law, the application of the law isn't necessarily equal for all. He said the court itself had established that principle on previous occasions.

Another Berlusconi attorney, Gaetano Pecorella, said he expected the court would uphold the immunity law because the judges were weighing a technical matter, not a political one.

"We're hoping that the court will decide in peace, taking into account only judicial considerations and forgetting political questions," Pecorella said as he entered the courthouse Tuesday.

A decision could come as early as late Tuesday, but could be delayed for several more days if any of the 15 judges needs more time to study the issue, Pecorella said.

The legislation before the court is an amended version of an earlier immunity law that was passed by Berlusconi's allies but rejected by the Constitutional Court in 2004. Italy's president said in July 2008, before signing the revised legislation, that upon an initial examination it appeared to have taken into account the problems raised by the Constitutional Court with the first law.

In the Milan trial, Berlusconi was accused of ordering the payment in 1997 of at least US$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.

While Berlusconi's portion of the trial was frozen when the immunity bill was passed, the trial went ahead for Mills. In February, he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison. Mills, the estranged husband of Britain's Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell, has long maintained his innocence and has said he would appeal.

In his past legal woes, Berlusconi has either been acquitted or cleared of charges because the statute of limitations had expired or because he enjoyed immunity as premier.

He has always maintained his innocence and depicted himself as a victim of left-leaning magistrates.

But just last week, 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 controversial 1990s takeover of the Mondadori publishing house.

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.

Due to the reversal, Mondadori is now part of Fininvest. Fininvest has said the ruling is unjust and it will seek to suspend the judgment pending an appeal.

While Berlusconi wasn't prosecuted in the case, the court found that he was "co-responsible" in the civil portion as head of Fininvest.

Berlusconi said Monday he was astounded by the Mondadori judgment and insisted - perhaps with a view toward Tuesday's Constitutional Court deliberations - that the government would "carry out its five-year mission and nothing will make us betray the mandate that Italians have given us."

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