Italy's High Court Set to Rule on Law Granting Premier Berlusconi Immunity

Italy’s highest court will decide today whether a law granting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi immunity while in office is constitutional, a ruling that may revive two pending corruption trials against him.

The measure allows the premier or ministers to have criminal trials postponed on grounds they’re too busy with official duties to attend. The Constitutional Court rejected two similar laws in 2004 and 2009, citing a constitutional article saying that all citizens must be treated equally under the law.

Berlusconi, who has denied wrongdoing and repeatedly said Italy’s judges seek to destroy him politically, said in Berlin yesterday that the ruling presents “no danger for the stability of the government,” which still has more than two years left in its term. Still, a decision against him may weaken the premier after he survived a parliamentary no-confidence motion on Dec. 14 by three votes.

“If the court says that the law is not constitutional, there are greater chances to go to an early dissolution of parliament and elections in spring,” said Giovanni Orsina, professor of history and European politics at Luiss University in Rome. “The likelihood of an early vote would increase, let’s say, from 60 percent to 75 percent.”

The biggest legal threat to Berlusconi comes from a Milan court that has accused him of allegedly paying $600,000 to U.K. lawyer David Mills to lie under oath.

Mills Case

Mills, ex-husband of former U.K. Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell, was sentenced in February 2009 to 4 1/2 years in jail for accepting a bribe from Berlusconi. Criminal charges against Mills were thrown out in February of last year when a higher court ruled that the statute of limitations had expired. Civil charges against Mills were upheld along with a 250,000-euro ($325,825) damage payment.

Berlusconi is also charged in another case with tax fraud in purchasing film rights for his television company, Mediaset SpA. The premier denies any wrongdoing in both cases.

Berlusconi, 74, called himself the “most persecuted man in all of history in the entire world” in October 2009, citing 106 investigations and trials against him, 2,500 court hearings and more than 200 million euros in consultant and legal fees.

He has been acquitted in eight corruption trials since entering politics 15 years ago, according to public records and the 2001 book “Odore dei Soldi” by Elio Veltri and Marco Travaglio. He has won two elections while facing criminal charges.

‘Partly Unconstitutional’

Constitutional Court President Ugo De Siervo postponed the original hearing on the law on Dec. 14 to avoid coinciding with the confidence votes that nearly toppled the government.

The 15-member court decided yesterday that a referendum on the law requested by the opposition Italy of Values party may be held this year. Whether the plebiscite takes place will depend on the court’s decision today.

“It is very difficult to predict what the outcome is going to be,” Orsina said about today’s ruling. “It’s likely that they’ll say that the law is at least partly unconstitutional and maybe even, while saying that, they’ll introduce some kind of differentiation or reform of the law which they can do sometimes.”

The law, known as legitimate impediment in Italian, is the third attempt by a Berlusconi government to protect the premier from corruption charges. In October 2009, the court struck down a broader immunity law, sponsored by Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, that shielded Italy’s top four officials, including the premier, from prosecution while in office. It overruled a similar 2004 measure passed by Berlusconi’s second government.

Under the law approved by parliament in March 2010, criminal hearings may be postponed three times for up to six months each. That means the two trials Berlusconi was facing when lawmakers passed the law could be suspended until October.

In April, Milan prosecutor Fabio De Pasquale, who is leading one of Berlusconi’s pending criminal cases, challenged the constitutionality of the measure that allows the premier and other top government members to have trials suspended while they carry out their duties.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lorenzo Totaro in Rome at ltotaro@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Craig Stirling at cstirling1@bloomberg.net.

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