Commentary: Berlusconi's Accidental Gift to Bin Laden

By Gail Edmondson

It's the great crackdown. Since the September 11 attacks on the U.S., officials in America and Europe have raced to boost international cooperation in criminal investigations, sharing information on bank accounts used by terrorist networks and tightening laws on money laundering and other financial crimes. Yet one country is marching in the opposite direction: Italy--much to the dismay of its judicial authorities. And leading the charge is none other than Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

On Oct. 3, Berlusconi's government approved a law making it more difficult for Italian magistrates to investigate suspicious cross-border financial flows. Another bill passed last month will partly decriminalize false accounting, shorten the statute of limitations on such cases, and sharply reduce the penalties for those found guilty.

Berlusconi backers in Parliament say the new law restricting the use of cross-border evidence will protect individuals from prosecution based on false documents. But it's no secret that the laws will also directly benefit Berlusconi--by derailing pending lawsuits against him for tax fraud, false accounting, and bribery. Indeed, portions of the controversial legislation were drafted by his former defense lawyer. In addition to being Prime Minister, Berlusconi is Italy's richest man, with an impressive collection of media assets.

SPRINGTIME FOR SCOFFLAWS. Some of his business partners will also see their trials scuppered, since the cases hinge on evidence supplied by foreign authorities. One revolves around a $20 million Swiss slush fund allegedly used by a Berlusconi associate to bribe Roman judges.

But the new measures are also a boon to terrorists, mafiosi, and plain old white-collar criminals. Swiss, French, German, British, and Italian prosecutors fear that the new statute on cross-border judicial collaboration may make it harder for Italian authorities to battle increasingly complex cross-border crime including terrorist financing. For starters, it may restrict the use of evidence against a group of eight suspected Osama bin Laden loyalists who were arrested in April north of Milan and are under investigation for conspiracy, arms trafficking, and use of false documents. What's more, since the legislation is retroactive, some 2,000 lawsuits are now in jeopardy, Italian magistrates say.

Italian politicians often carry on as if they were above the law--and Italian citizens tend to shrug off their leaders' corrupt excesses. But as Europe knits itself closer together politically and economically, Berlusconi's self-serving behavior and his compatriots' cynical tolerance look increasingly out of place. Indeed, European officials say that Italy's new law on cross-border investigations conflicts with a European convention dating back to 1959, not to mention European and U.N. counter-terrorism directives now in the works. "We are worried that the application of the Italian law could slow international judicial cooperation," says Heinrich Koller, director of the Federal Office of Justice in Bern, Switzerland.

Berlusconi has boasted loudly that he wants to be America's closest European ally. But on every front, Italy's Prime Minister seems a dubious partner. On Sept. 26, he nearly torpedoed U.S. efforts to build a broad anti-terrorist coalition with his intemperate remarks. Speaking at a press conference in Berlin, Berlusconi made the claim that Western civilization was superior to that of Islam and was "bound to occidentalize and conquer new people." Although his words played well among Italy's anti-immigrant voters, they raised an outcry from Arab leaders and prompted immediate rebuttal by Western politicians. Berlusconi then denied having made the remarks, preposterously claiming to have been the victim of a "left-wing conspiracy" to twist his words.

Decades of corruption have badly eroded Italians' faith in their democratic institutions. Berlusconi insisted during a slick election campaign this year that he would modernize Italy, starting with the justice system. Yet his behavior since taking office in June belies that promise. Despite pledges to the contrary, he has been unwilling to sell off any of his media holdings or otherwise resolve the blatant conflicts of interest between his political and business positions. Now, by working so assiduously to protect his own interests, Berlusconi may also be furthering those of bin Laden and his henchmen.

Edmondson covers Italian politics and business from Rome.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.