22nd Sep 2021

European court-inspired bill may end Berlusconi trials

  • Berlusconi at an EU summit. His trials have become a notorious topic of discussions (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

Italy's lower house on Wednesday (13 April) narrowly approved a draft bill aimed at speeding up court cases, a move that could end some of Silvio Berlusconi's corruption trials.

Dubbed the "Prime Minister-saving law" by La Repubblica newspaper, the controversial piece of legislation was passed by 314 to 296 votes amid boos from the opposition and is likely to have no problem being approved by the Senate, where the Berlusconi majority is stronger.

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If enacted, the bill would shorten the statute of limitations and would oblige judges to inform the minister if and why a process takes longer than three years.

Italy's court system is notoriously slow and has been repeatedly criticised and fined by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). According to ECHR statistics, Italy is first among EU countries with 1,617 judgments by the Strasbourg court, followed by France with only half that amount. Sixty percent of Italy's violations were linked to the length of judicial proceedings.

Last December, the Council of Europe called on Italy to reform its justice system and speed up its "snail-paced" trials. It also said that delays in Italian justice violate due process and "endanger respect for the supremacy of the law."

"Infinite trial lengths damage all citizens," justice minister Angelino Alfano said Wednsday when defending the bill, which "will avoid having the kind of negative impact on the entire legal system that some people have been talking about." Alfano is likely to succeed Berlusconi in 2013 when his mandate ends, the premier told foreign journalists in Rome on Tuesday.

Opposition politicians claim that the real motive behind the law is to kill several corruption trials against Berlusconi. Two such cases were kicked off in 2006 and would be affected by the law's statute of limitations: One in which he is accused of bribing a British lawyer, David Mills, and another one about tax fraud at his Mediaset television company.

"The law on short trials is an amnesty in disguise, thought up to avoid having the prime minister face trial," said Piero Fassino, a deputy from the centre-left Democratic Party.

Hundreds of demonstrators have rallied for days in front of parliament against the bill, including associations of magistrates who say the law would cause havoc in thousands of high-profile cases such as the bankruptcy of Italian dairy giant Parmalat or the trial of former Bank of Italy governor Antonio Fazio for market manipulation.

Berlusconi has regularly claimed to be the victim of a politicised judiciary wanting to oust him from power. Speaking to foreign journalists on Tuesday, he said magistrates had declared war on the government and represented a "cancer" in the Italian system, Ansa reports.

His spokesman Paulo Banaiuti later explained that the remarks were "hypothetical" and did not reflect any concrete plan.

Apart from the corruption cases, Berlusconi's "Rubygate" trial kicked off in Milan earlier this month, a case in which he is accused of paying for sex with an under-age Moroccan and abusing his office for getting her out of jail by claiming she was the granddaughter of former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak.

Two more girls, barely 18 at the time they attended Berlusconi's infamous "Bunga bunga" parties, on Monday testified to prosecutors about their experiences last year at his villa in Arcore, which included stripping, dancing and erotic games in front of the premier and his friends. Berlusconi's lawyers dismissed the testimonies as "unfounded".

An earlier version of this story stated that the law would put a 3-year cap on all trials in which the defendant is facing sentences of up to ten years of prison. The respective amendment was taken out of the final text.

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