Italian Parliament Set to Finish Vote on Law That May End Berlusconi Trial

Italy may pass a bill today that would shorten the length of trials in the country with Europe’s slowest legal proceedings, possibly ending some corruption cases against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, will likely conclude voting in Rome on the measure. Opposition lawmakers, including former anti-graft prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro, insist it’s tailored to end Berlusconi’s legal woes. Supporters say the legislation is needed to overhaul one of the least-efficient judicial systems in Europe. The final vote is expected to take place at 8 p.m.

“It’s the same old problem,” Enrico Letta, deputy head of the main opposition Democratic Party, told reporters in Rome this week. “It’s the gap between Berlusconi’s personal interest and the interest of Italians” who want “proper trials carried out in a reasonable timeframe.”

Hundreds of demonstrators have rallied for days in front of parliament against the bill, which the National Association of Magistrates says would affect thousands of other trials. Protesters say the cases include the bankruptcy of Parmalat Finanziaria SpA, the trial of former Bank of Italy Governor Antonio Fazio for market manipulation and proceedings related to a 2009 gas explosion in the Tuscan city of Viareggio that killed almost two dozen people, relatives of whom took part in today’s protest outside parliament.

“Infinite trial lengths damage all citizens,” Justice Minister Angelino Alfano said in remarks broadcast yesterday by Sky TG24 television. Recent amendments to the bill “will avoid it having the kind of negative impact on the entire legal system that some people have been talking about.”

Slim Majority

Berlusconi’s parliamentary majority was weakened last year when dozens of lawmakers defected from his ruling coalition, partly over his attempts to overhaul the justice system. He generally has a Chamber majority of about 10 votes. As the version of the bill that passed the Senate was amended in the Chamber, it will have to be voted again in the Senate, where Berlusconi has a broader majority than in the lower house.

The bill sets a three year-limit on trials where the defendant faces a maximum sentence of 10 years. The law would grant another two years for the first appeal, and one and a half years for the final appeal. For more serious cases such as Mafia crimes or terrorism, the process can last as long as 10 years, the legislation says.

Berlusconi, 74, faces two trials that started in 2006. In one, he’s accused of bribing U.K. lawyer David Mills to lie on his behalf under oath. In the other, he faces charges of tax fraud at his Mediaset SpA (MS) television company. The premier denies any wrongdoing and says prosecutors want to topple him.

Nothing Thrown Out

“No trial will be shelved,” Maurizio Paniz, who’s leading the bill through parliament for Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, said in comments posted on the party’s website. The bill “is completely indifferent” to Berlusconi because in almost all his trials, “the judges will make sure to complete all the levels of justice in time and nothing will be thrown out.”

Italian trials can drag on for more than a decade, and the slow pace has been repeatedly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.

Italy leads the EU with 1,617 violation judgments by the Strasbourg, France-based court, with France second with less than half that amount, according to the organization’s website. Sixty percent of Italy’s violations were linked to the length of judicial proceedings.

Due Process

Last December, the Council of Europe called on Italy to overhaul its justice system and speed up its “snail-paced” trials. In March 2009, the council, Europe’s top human-rights monitor, ruled that delays in Italian justice violate due process and “endanger respect for the supremacy of the law.”

Berlusconi currently faces four trials, including one in which he’s charged with paying for sex with an underage night- club dancer. He’s called himself “the biggest legal defendant in history” and said he’s spent roughly $430 million to defend himself and his companies against legal action since he entered politics in 1994.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeffrey Donovan at jdonovan26@bloomberg.net.

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

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