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Berlusconi's legal reforms: justice or vendetta?

By Domenico Pacitti

Italy’s controversial billionaire premier, Silvio Berlusconi, suffered an unexpected setback last January after the Italian constitutional court rescinded a new law granting the prime minister and four other top state officials immunity from criminal trial during their terms in office. However, Mr Berlusconi, whose media empire is estimated to be worth over ten billion euros, appears to have the matter well under control.

Commentators outside Italy have speculated that it might well lead to the collapse of Mr Berlusconi’s Freedom House alliance government, Italy’s fifty-ninth since the last war. But the Left opposition and Italians fairly generally appear convinced that this government could still break all records by running a full and uninterrupted 5-year term to April 2006.

The new law, presented by Renato Schifani, a senator in Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, had been urgently approved by the Italian parliament, just ten days before Mr Berlusconi was due to lead Italy’s 6-month EU presidency. The law had been widely criticised as the latest in a series of legislative measures which were tailor-made to suit the premier’s personal needs.

The predicted effect of the new law was to suspend an embarrassing ongoing case against Mr Berlusconi for bribery. When he made a televised court appearance last year, Mr Berlusconi became Italy’s first ever serving prime minister to give evidence at his own criminal trial.

In 1995 Mr Berlusconi and his former defence minister and personal legal adviser, Cesare Previti, were charged with having bribed judges in a 1986 court case over a rival bid to take over the state-owned food giant SME. Mr Previti has already been cleared of the bribery charge but was given a 5-year prison sentence, which he has already appealed against, for paying a Rome judge to maintain smooth relations.

Mr Berlusconi’s chief legal adviser, Gaetano Pecorella, warned that the revocation would have implications beyond Mr Berlusconi’s case. Another legal adviser, Niccolò Ghedini, said that he expected the trial to resume in March. Both Mr Pecorella and Mr Ghedini are prominent MPs in Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

Mr Berlusconi, whose long-running complaint that he is the victim of a witch-hunt by politicised magistrates, is meanwhile pressing on with major reforms to the judiciary aimed at guaranteeing Italians “a fairer and more efficient system of justice”.

The judiciary has reacted by declaring a 2-day strike on 11th and 12th March. Although many of the planned reforms appear warranted – such as separating the careers of judges from those of public prosecutors and basing career advancement on merit rather than on accumulated years of service –  there is understandable perplexity within the magistracy that their power is being curtailed by a man who should be in prison and who is instead, as the Agnelli-owned La Stampa recently put it, seeking to carry out a vendetta.

Raised tempers over the reforms recently led to the resignation of the secretary of the Italian national magistrates’ association, Carlo Fucci, who had accused the government of attempting to impose a Mussolini-style fascist structure on the judiciary.

The sting in the tail of the reforms is the establishment of a close tie between the apex of the new proposed judicial hierarchy and the government. This would facilitate the appropriate seizure of documents and removal of magistrates from cases and could even come into force in the case of Mr Berlusconi should the SME trial be resumed. It would thus render superfluous the customary technique of drawing out cases over long periods in order to have them eventually annulled by Italy’s statute of time limitations.

A final blow to public prosecutors is Mr Berluscon’s plan to cancel a key law introduced in 1989 which allowed public prosecutors to coordinate police investigations. It was this law which opened the floodgates to Operation “Clean Hands” a few years later.

The government, which is enjoying an unusually high majority in Parliament, expects to have these and other major reforms fully approved and operational by June.

Mr Berlusconi has in the meantime made the unorthodox decision to stand at forthcoming European by-elections next June, since in his case a victory would have no legal validity. Pressed by the Left to reverse his decision, Mr Berlusconi explained that he was looking for a show of confidence from Italian voters and that even if he lost he would not stand down as premier.

Mr Berlusconi further angered the Left opposition by insisting that Romano Prodi should desist from his renewed involvement in Italian domestic politics, given his obligations as president of the EU Commission. Mr Prodi has confirmed that he will take over the leadership of Italy’s new three-party centre-left alliance at the end of the year in a bid to oust Mr Berlusconi from power.

The latest in a series of widely publicised supposed diplomatic “gaffes” by Mr Berlusconi occurred during his recent visit to Athens when he told a televised press conference that Italian career politicians knew nothing about the world of work, having themselves never worked in their lives, that they had used the money they had stolen from the Italian people to buy townhouses, holiday homes and yachts and that they should therefore be investigated.

A wide cross-section of Italian politicians expressed their shock at Mr Berlusconi’s words. Three prominent politicians of the Left who own holiday homes have confirmed that they will sue for defamation. But the popular reaction was that Mr Berlusconi was simply voicing hard truths that have long been thought privately but rarely aired publicly.

Such anti-political remarks are unlikely to lose Mr Berlusconi popularity among voters since his condemnation of the old corrupt system in favour of a new transparent and efficient one was one of the two main reasons why he won the last elections. The other reason was his pledge to cut taxes, a promise which he has partly honoured and which he intends to fulfil in the government’s budget for 2006.

This article was published for the first time by JUST Response on February 24 2004.