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Minister admits Italian justice system 'struggles'

Senate approves measure decriminalising illegal immigration

21 January, 17:57
Minister admits Italian justice system 'struggles' (By Paul Virgo) (ANSA) - Rome, January 21 - Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri admitted Tuesday that Italy's judicial system was "struggling" despite the good work of the country's magistrates.

Italy is frequently reprimanded by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) over the amount of time it takes Italian courts to reach verdicts. Furthermore, in May the ECtHR set Rome a one-year deadline to find a solution to chronic overcrowding in Italy's jails. Italian prisons are more than 15% over capacity and overcrowding is a factor in high suicide rates.

"The system is struggling despite the response of the Italian judiciary, which came first in terms of productivity in the latest EU report on justice efficiency," Cancellieri said as she presented a government justice resolution in the Lower House Tuesday. "Higher workloads (in terms of criminal and civil cases) and greater scope of action for the magistrates are at the origins of the slowness of the verdicts and fears that the overexposure of the judiciary can alter the delicate balance between powers of the State," she added, before the resolution was approved with 296 votes in favour, 142 against and 32 abstentions. The minister said that Italy's courts were faced with over eight million outstanding cases at the last count in June 2013, 5.2 million civil ones and almost 3.5 million criminal ones.

As for overcrowding, she said moves to grant early release for less serious crimes and the use of alternative punishments to jail had helped reduce the prison population.

She said there were 62,326 inmates on January 9, compared to 64,056 on December 4. President Giorgio Napolitano has repeatedly called for amnesties to help improve conditions in Italy's jails.

Cancellieri said this would make it possible for Rome to respond to the demands of the ECtHR but said parliament had to decide.

Reform of the justice system is a divisive issue in Italy, in part because of the legal problems of three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi, who says he is the victim of a campaign by left-wing elements in the judiciary to wipe him from the political arena.

Centre-right leader Berlusconi was ejected from parliament last year after a tax-fraud conviction was upheld by the supreme court, making it the media magnate's first definitive conviction in two decades of legal battles. Berlusconi is also appealing convictions for having sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power to cover it up, and for involvement in the publication of an illegally obtained wiretap.

He has been indicted for allegedly bribing a Senator to change political sides too.

Cancellieri stressed that the problems should not be used as an excuse. "The current condition of difficulty that the justice system is in should not enable the mistaken conviction that things cannot improve to prevail," the minister said.

"Nor should it provide alibis for immobility. We can all contribute so that the optimism of willpower beats the pessimism of reason". In the Senate, meanwhile, a government measure to decriminalize illegal immigration was approved. Italy's tough migration laws became a hot issue in October when prosecutors were obliged to put the survivors of two migrant-boat disasters, in which some 400 people died, under investigation in order to respect the law. Critics say the government measure does not go far enough, because it still allows for anyone entering the country without a visa to be expelled. The government's proposal was a compromise after centre-right and right-wing parties expressed concerns that softening the migration laws could cause security risks. While being an illegal immigrant is no longer a criminal offence, it is considered such in the case of repeat offenders, such as someone who breaks the law against entering Italy without a visa after having previously been expelled. Foreign Minister Emma Bonino spoke about the issue Tuesday, warning of the possible presence of terrorist 'sleeper cells' among refugees arriving in Europe. "Millions of refugees, including women and children, provide an easy hiding place for a whole series of other gentlemen," said Bonino. "It is a European problem because Italy is a transit country and the final destination of sleeper cells is a matter for the whole of Europe".

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