Italian court waters down Berlusconi immunity law

Rome, Jan.14 (ANI): An Italian constitutional court has opened the way for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to be put back on trial, throwing out crucial parts of the law that represented his latest attempt to shield himself from prosecution.

The 12-3 ruling complicates Berlusconi's efforts to consolidate his parliamentary majority and shortens the odds on an early election.

Berlusconi faces returning to the dock in three interconnected prosecutions accusing him of fraud, bribery and other offences, The Guardian reports.

But according to some interpretations, the complex judgment may give Berlusconi scope to delay proceedings.

One case concerns his alleged bribery of David Mills, the estranged husband of former British cabinet minister Tessa Jowell.

The law dealt with by the constitutional court was passed last year. It allowed for trials of cabinet ministers to be suspended on the grounds their official duties prevented them from defending themselves properly.

The court decided it is up to a trial judge to decide on a case-by-case basis whether this is a valid excuse.

Donatella Ferranti, who heads the opposition group on the all-party Justice Committee in the lower house of Italy's parliament, said: "This is the umpteenth blow to a practice of making laws tailor-made [for Berlusconi] that has characterised this legislature. It confirms that the reasons for our opposition were well founded, reasonable and constructive."

But Berlusconi's culture minister, Sandro Bondi, said the court had given the judiciary a pre-eminent position, above the institutions of democracy. It represented "the overthrow of the principles not just of our constitution but of the fundamental principles of any democracy". (ANI)

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