ROME Italy's parliament gave its first nod on Wednesday to a draft law drastically cutting the duration of trials, a measure critics say is tailor-made to stop pending court cases against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The Senate, where Berlusconi has an ample majority, approved the so-called "short trial" draft bill -- one of the most radical reforms of Italy's snail-paced justice system since the end of World War Two -- by 163 to 130 votes.
It will now go before the lower house, where it is all but certain to get the green light.
The draft law sets a total limit of between 6-1/2 and 10 years on the three stages of court cases -- initial trial, first appeal and final appeal -- depending on how serious the crime is. An extension is possible for mafia and terrorism cases, but beyond that the defendant would be automatically acquitted.
Because of its retroactive effect, the measure would effectively terminate two corruption and tax fraud trials against Berlusconi, who denies all charges and says he has been hounded by magistrates since entering politics in 1994.
"The time limits introduced by this law are still too long," said Berlusconi, adding that going to trial in Italy was like entering Dante's Inferno (Hell).
He said his lawyers had advised him against attending any of his own trials because it would be like facing "execution squads."
The opposition said the draft bill was the umpteenth "ad personam" law, using the Latin term meaning "for one person," to save Berlusconi from prosecution. It says the way to speed up trials is to give the judiciary more resources.
"Your priority has been, government after government, to serve a private interest; to do this you have not been afraid of shattering our legal system; and you have never shown any shame," Anna Finocchiaro, head of the PD center-left senators, told the upper house of parliament.
Some opposition senators waved banners reading "Berlusconi, face your trials."
Magistrates say the law could end up to 100,000 trials, including some big fraudulent bankruptcy cases in which tens of thousands of small investors are suing to get their money back.
Berlusconi's allies say only 1 percent of Italy's trials, which can last over two decades, would be affected. They point to the recent example of Calogero Mannino, a centrist politician and three-times minister who was definitively cleared of mafia charges last week after a 16-year battle through the courts.
"We need this law to rescue our justice system," said Maurizio Gasparri, head of Berlusconi's PDL party in the Senate.
The justice minister complains that civil courts take on average 960 days to reach a sentence, 1,500 more for an appeal and have a backlog of 5.4 million cases. Criminal courts average 420 days for a sentence and have 3.6 million cases pending.
Berlusconi lost his immunity from prosecution in October when Italy's top court ruled legislation passed by his government to shield him from trials while in office violated the constitutional principle that all are equal before the law.
That ruling allowed two court cases against him to resume.
Since then, the 73 year-old conservative leader has pledged to overhaul the judiciary. He says that over the past 15 years he has been saddled with 109 trials and 200 million euros of legal fees, and was never convicted.
Besides cutting the duration of trials, his government is also mulling a law giving Berlusconi a "legitimate impediment" from attending court cases because of his official commitments, and a constitutional reform to restore his immunity.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)