ROME Magistrates walked out of courts across Italy on Saturday in protest against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's judicial reforms and what they see as aggressive language used against them.
"An execution squad, sewer, cancer, metastasis -- these are some of the words that the prime minister and his deputies have used to describe us," said Gioacchino Natoli of the National Magistrates Association union, which organized the protest.
"We don't want to be subject to this continued aggression."
Berlusconi has been on the warpath against the magistrates -- whom he accuses of being "communists" out to destroy him -- for months and has vowed to overhaul the judiciary with reforms that critics say are tailor-made to shield him from prosecution.
In appeals court ceremonies from Sicily to Milan to mark the start of the judicial year, magistrates walked out with copies of the constitution in hand when government representatives began their speeches.
Magistrates have been particularly incensed by a draft bill that would drastically cut the maximum duration of Italy's slow-moving trials, which would terminate two corruption and tax fraud trials against Berlusconi.
The billionaire prime minister denies all charges and says he is the victim of magistrates who hound him.
Many magistrates agree reforms are needed -- the chief justice of the Supreme Court on Friday attacked Italian trials of moving "slower than those in Gabon" -- but argue that an artificial time limit is counterproductive and may boost crime.
Government officials described the protest as lacking in credibility and urged magistrates to engage in dialogue instead.
"When criticism is blind and refuses to acknowledge anything, it is less credible," Justice Minister Angelino Alfano said during a ceremony in L'Aquila, attacking the protest.
Berlusconi lost his immunity from prosecution in October when Italy's top court ruled that 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 far-reaching legal reforms. He says that over the past 15 years he has been saddled with 109 trials and 200 million euros ($280.8 million) in legal fees, and was never convicted.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)