January 11, 2010 / 1:46 PM / 10 years ago

Back at work, Italy's Berlusconi seeks new immunity

ROME (Reuters) - On his first day back at work almost a month after he was attacked, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was busy on Monday working out a three-pronged strategy to regain his immunity from prosecution.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi talks to reporters as he arrives in his private residence at Grazioli palace in Rome January 11, 2010. REUTERS/Max Rossi

At lunch with the justice minister, his most faithful party allies and his own lawyer, Berlusconi discussed three draft bills — two of which could be approved by March — designed to rid him of his legal headaches.

Two trials for corruption and tax fraud against Berlusconi were allowed to resume last October when Italy’s top court ruled that a law passed by his government and shielding him from prosecution while in office was unconstitutional.

Since then, the 73-year old media tycoon, who says he has been hounded by “communist” magistrates since he entered politics in 1994 and denies charges against him, has sought to restore his immunity and have pending trials stopped.

Riding on a wave of sympathy after a mentally unstable man broke his nose and teeth on December 13, Berlusconi has denounced a climate of hate and split the opposition with a call for dialogue on political reforms — starting with the judiciary.

“Let’s carry on now,” a smiling Berlusconi told supporters waiving a “Welcome Back” banner outside his Rome residence.

“I have a little scar here,” he said, pointing to his injured cheek. “But my muscles are very strong, you’ll see.”

On Tuesday, the government is due to submit to parliament — where Berlusconi has an ample majority — a bill that would drastically cut the duration of Italy’s slow trials.

The bill sets a total six-year limit on the three stages of court cases — initial trial, first appeal and final appeal — in a country where trials can last more than a decade.

But the opposition and magistrates say it is yet another “ad personam” law — using the Latin term meaning “for a person” — meant to stop in their tracks the trials against the premier.

A second bill expected to land in parliament this week gives Berlusconi a “legitimate impediment” to attending court cases against him because of his official commitments, meaning hearings will have to be rescheduled against him.

The third measure being prepared by Berlusconi’s allies is a new immunity law that could be extended to all members of parliament — something Italy abolished in the mid-1990s in the wake of the Tangentopoli bribery scandals.

This would have to be a constitutional law, which has a longer path through parliament and can be shelved by referendum.

“POLITICISED JUDGES”

Even Berlusconi’s closest aides acknowledge that the aim of the planned reforms is to keep him out of court — but say this is only legitimate because magistrates are out to persecute him.

“These are not ad personam laws, but an answer to a politicised judiciary that wants to hit the prime minister,” said Berlusconi’s spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti.

“There have been 2,500 hearings, hundreds and hundreds of searches by financial police, 787 magistrates and prosecutors that in one way or another have investigated Berlusconi ... If the opposition understands this, then it’s a step forward.”

Weakened by infighting and fearing a drubbing in regional elections in March, the centre left is in a difficult position.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The leader of the main PD opposition party, Pierluigi Bersani, has said he is open to dialogue with the government on genuine reforms, but not on tailor-made laws to save the premier.

If he does strike a deal with Berlusconi on the judiciary, Bersani risks losing his main ally — former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, who rejects any agreement with the government.

But if he does not, the PD leader would likely undermine an electoral alliance with centrist parties like the UDC, which says that an ad-hoc law shielding Berlusconi is better than a bad reform which could terminate up to 100,000 trials.

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