Top court rules out Berlusconi immunity

Italy’s leader now faces prosecution

By Alessandra Rizzo and Ariel David
Associated Press / October 8, 2009

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ROME - A top Italian court yesterday overturned a law granting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi immunity from prosecution, allowing trials for corruption and tax fraud to resume in Milan and prompting immediate calls for his resignation.

The decision by the Constitutional Court dealt Berlusconi one of the most serious blows in his 15-year battle with the Italian judiciary. It handed prosecutors another chance to ask for his conviction and added to a list of problems that already includes a headline-grabbing sex scandal.

The billionaire businessman-turned-politician dismissed any suggestion of resignation and his conservative allies, who dominate Parliament, quickly rallied to his support.

“Nothing will happen, we will go forward,’’ the premier told reporters in front of his residence in Rome.

“The trials they will hurl at me in Milan are real farces,’’ he said. “I will detract some hours from taking care of the government to go there and show them to be liars.’’

The ever-combative premier said he felt “invigorated’’ by the challenge and ended his brief statement by shouting “Long live Italy! Long live Berlusconi!’’

Berlusconi, 73, continues to be widely popular in Italy despite accusations from his wife that he has had affairs with far younger women and allegations from a self-described call girl that he spent a night with her. The scandal erupted in the spring after his wife announced she was divorcing him.

Berlusconi says he is “no saint’’ but has denied ever paying anyone for sex or having any improper relationships.

The law overturned yesterday was pushed through by Berlusconi’s conservative coalition in 2008, when he faced separate trials in Milan for corruption and tax fraud tied to his Mediaset broadcasting empire. It granted immunity from prosecution while in office to the country’s four top office holders - the premier, president of the republic, and the two parliament speakers.

The proceedings against Berlusconi were suspended as a result of the law, drawing accusations that it was tailor-made for the premier.

Berlusconi has denied all charges, and his lawyers had argued in court yesterday that he could not be a defendant and at the same time serve as premier.

But the 15-judge Constitutional Court, which deals with all matters regarding the constitutionality of Italian law, said that after two days of deliberations it had found the legislation violated the principle that all are equal before the law.

It also rejected the measure on formal grounds because it was not passed with the lengthy procedure that must be used for any legislation on the constitution.

The breakdown of the vote is not made public in Italy, but state and private Italian media reported, without citing sources, that the judges split nine to six.

“I hope that today, in light of the court’s decision, the premier will stop making laws for his own use, resign from his job, and be what he has resisted being for the past 15 years: the defendant,’’ said Antonio di Pietro, a member of the opposition.