Berlusconi suffers trial setback as judges amend law

A law shielding Premier Silvio Berlusconi from prosecution was weakened by a top Italian court in a highly awaited and politically charged decision.

Updated: Jan 13, 2011, 23:40 PM IST

Rome: A law shielding Premier Silvio Berlusconi from prosecution was weakened by a top Italian court on Thursday in a highly awaited and politically charged decision.

The Constitutional Court`s ruling was seen as a compromise between judges who wanted to strike down the law completely, and those who wanted to keep it intact.

Berlusconi is a defendant in two trials in Milan, on corruption and tax fraud charges. The trials had been suspended because of the law, which was passed last year by Berlusconi`s conservatives in parliament and immediately drew accusations it was tailor-made for the premier.

The legislation said trials can be automatically suspended by six months, and up to 18 months, if defendants say they have a "legitimate impediment" stemming from being premier or a member of government.

The Constitutional Court maintains the possibility of seeking a postponement due to "legitimate impediment."

But in a significant provision, it rejected as unconstitutional the automatic and enduring shield from trial provided by the legislation. The court gave judges trying Berlusconi the power to verify each time the claim to "legitimate impediment" is made by the defense and decide whether the premier should be exempt from trial.

It was the first time that a law shielding Berlusconi from prosecution has passed, however partially, the scrutiny of the Constitutional Court. In 2004 and 2009, immunity laws for Berlusconi had been fully rejected by the court as unconstitutional.

Berlusconi is coming off a turbulent period, and a full rejection would have dealt him a serious blow. The 74-Italian leader has been weakened by sex scandals, a fight with an ex-ally and a shaky parliamentary majority.

Berlusconi insisted before the ruling that his government`s stability would not be affected by the decision, and that he is "totally indifferent as to whether the trials are suspended or not." He called the trials "ridiculous."

Bureau Report