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Italian high court rules against premier

ROME -- In a major setback for Premier Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Constitutional Court ruled yesterday that the immunity law that blocked his bribery trial is unconstitutional, paving the way for the case to return to the courtroom.

The trial in Milan is expected to resume in about two months with a new panel of judges, one of the premier's lawyers, Niccolo Ghedini, said.

The trial was approaching a verdict in June when the law, backed by Berlusconi's center-right coalition, took effect.

Parliament passed the legislation with lightning speed shortly before Berlusconi stepped into the European Union presidency, a rotating position he held the last six months of 2003.

The law protects the premier and four other top officeholders from prosecution while in office.

But the Constitutional Court, Italy's highest court for constitutional matters, ruled the law violates the constitutional principle that all citizens are equal before the law. The court's decisions cannot be appealed.

A top member of Berlusconi's government, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, said the court's ruling suggests that Italy needs to guarantee such immunity by changing the constitution instead of enacting simple legislation.

Prosecutors "have the right to investigate but also the duty not to interfere" with a popular mandate given to an elected official, Frattini said on state television.

Berlusconi, who has been battling legal problems stemming from his business empire for years, has denied any wrongdoing, maintaining he is the victim of what he claims is a political vendetta by left-leaning magistrates. "We don't agree with this ruling, but we respect it," said Renato Schifani, the Senate whip for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party and the architect of the immunity legislation. "We weren't seeking impunity, but simply the possibility to carry out institutional roles."

Carlo Taormina, a trial lawyer as well as a lawmaker with Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, described the ruling as politically motivated and said the premier was not worried by it.

Berlusconi is accused of bribing judges to sway a ruling in the sale of state-held food conglomerate SME in the 1980s, years before he went into politics.

In a rare appearance at last year's trial, the premier said he intervened in the deal only to serve the nation's interests and said the charges were both groundless and harmful to Italy's prestige.

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