November 13, 2009 / 3:27 PM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 1-Critics say justice reform made to save Berlusconi

* Berlusconi allies say law will benefit all Italians

* Proposal would extinguish two Berlusconi trials

* Opposition vows strong fight; says law unconstitutional

(Adds ex-partner calling law “pile of rubbish”, paragraph 7)

By Philip Pullella

ROME, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi says his government’s justice reform plan will benefit all Italians but critics say it is just the latest in a string of tailor-made laws to help him avoid corruption trials.

The draft law, which was presented by Berlusconi allies in the Senate on Thursday, calls for one of the most radical reforms of Italy’s snail-paced justice system since the end of World War Two.

It would impose a total six-year limit on the three stages of court cases — initial trial, first appeal and final appeal — in a country where trials can last more than a decade.

“This is not a tailor-made law. It is a law that affects everyone,” said Gaetano Pecorella, a parliamentarian of the governing centre-right People of Freedom bloc who is also one of Berlusconi’s lawyers.

But the opposition, magistrates and consumer advocacy groups say it is yet another “ad personam” law, using the Latin term meaning “for a person”.

“What it all boils down to is impunity for Berlusconi,” the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper said in an editorial.

Pierferdinando Casini, leader of the centrist Union of Christian Democrats who was a partner with Berlusconi in a previous government and who Berlusconi has been trying to woo back to his side, dismissed the law as “a pile of rubbish”.

If the law is passed in its current form, which commentators say is likely because the centre right has a comfortable majority in both houses of parliament, two of Berlusconi’s current trials will be declared extinct.

One is a trial against him on charges of false accounting in the acquisition of TV rights by his Mediaset television empire.

Another is a case in which he is accused of bribing British lawyer David Mills to give false testimony in 1997 to protect Berlusconi’s business interests.

Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing.

BERLUSCONI BACK IN THE DOCK?

Berlusconi was to have returned to the dock in those cases and others after Italy’s highest court ruled last month that his immunity from prosecution while in office — guaranteed by a law passed by his government — was unconstitutional.

After that ruling, Berlusconi demanded that his allies close ranks and come up with a way to protect him from magistrates he says are “communists” who are bent on destroying him.

The centre-left opposition has vowed to fight the law, which is expected to be the rallying cry of a national anti-Berlusconi demonstration planned for Dec. 5 in Rome.

The national magistrates association warned that the law could have “devastating consequences” on the courts system because it would extinguish up to 100,000 trials, including major cases.

Some trials at risk of being terminated are several for fraudulent bankruptcy in which tens of thousands of consumers and small investors are suing to get their money back.

Daniele Capezzone, a spokesman for Berlusconi’s bloc, said the law’s aim was to help Italy respond to demands by the European Union and others to streamline its justice system and that it would not affect trials for a string of serious crimes — including mafia and terrorism.

He accused the national magistrates association of behaving like a “little sectarian, ideological party that has no right to take part in political debate”.

A number of international business groups have said one of the main obstacles to more international investment in Italy is its opaque, slow justice system.

But even some of Berlusconi’s traditional supporters turned against him.

“This is shameful, criminal, something that instigates crime, a licence to break the law,” said lawyer Carlo Taormina who served in a previous Berlusconi government.

“In order to block justice for one individual, they are blocking it for 100,000,” he said. (Editing by Charles Dick)

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