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Berlusconi shield law partly struck down

Ruling sets limits on 'legitimate impediment' immunity norm

13 January, 17:00
Berlusconi shield law partly struck down (ANSA) - Rome, January 13 - Italy's top court on Thursday partly struck down the latest in a series of laws that have sought to shield Premier Silvio Berlusconi from trials.

The Constitutional Court ruled that the so-called 'legitimate impediment' law, currently protecting the premier from three trials in Milan until October, should not automatically halt proceedings, court sources told ANSA.

The 15 justices said each trial judge could assess what legitimately constituted an impediment to the premier, or other ministers, attending trials.

In their assessments, judges should take into account the competing rights and needs of justice and those of officials in carrying out their duties, the ruling said.

The verdict was keenly awaited in Italy and abroad and analysts said it might have an impact on the government at a time when Berlusconi is struggling to widen his wafer-thin majority in the House so as to carry on governing effectively.

Some analysts even speculated a No ruling might trigger early elections but Berlusconi rejected the claim this week, saying he was "indifferent" to the verdict no matter which way it went.

Speaking on Wednesday, he said the stability of the government would not be affected by the ruling and vowed to "explain" to the Italian public once more how "ridiculous" he considers the trials in which he has been involved.

"There is no danger for the stability of the government, whatever the outcome of the Constitutional Court hearing," the premier said.

"I consider ridiculous the trials in which I am involved.

"I will reveal to Italians what it's about and what will emerge is the sickness of our democracy in which judicial powers have overstepped their sphere".

Now that the law has been ruled partially Constitutional, a referendum against it promoted by a centre-left opposition party is expected to go forward.

The referendum sponsored by ex-graftbuster Antonio Di Pietro's Italy of Values party got the green light from the Constitutional Court Wednesday. The two previous immunity laws were overturned in 2004 and 2009, with the Constitutional Court saying they were against the Constitutional principle that everyone is equal before the law.

The Court was petitioned to rule on legitimate impediment by judges in Berlusconi's three trials in Milan. In one he is accused of paying his corporate lawyer David Mills for favourable testimony in two previous trials.

The other two involve alleged tax fraud and embezzlement on TV rights acquired by his Mediaset media empire.

Berlusconi denies wrongdoing and says he is the victim of persecution by a left-leaning section of the judiciary.