ROME (Reuters) - A new plan by Italy’s center-right government to give Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi more immunity from prosecution sparked outrage on Thursday from the opposition.
“This is moving from criminal activity by Mafiosi to criminal activity by parliamentarians,” said Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-graft magistrate who heads the small opposition Italy of Values party.
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 principle that all are equal before the law.
To fix that, the government in April passed the “legitimate impediment” law. The measure blocked for up to 18 months trials that had started after Berlusconi took office in 2008 on the grounds that his work as head of government impeded him from attending.
Now the government wants to extend to the prime minister immunity privileges that had been foreseen only for the Italian president in a draft constitutional law.
The modifications are due to go to a parliamentary justice committee next week, the committee’s head said on Wednesday.
Berlusconi’s opponents have accused the media mogul of stitching together tailor-made laws to suit his personal judicial woes and said this was the latest example.
“This is like the evolution of the species,” Di Pietro said. “Making laws to save your skin.”
Berlusconi is already protected from trial until about September 2011 by the “legitimate impediment” law. The new provision would protect him beyond that to the end of his term in April 2013, if the government lasts that long.
“I hope this is a joke,” said Andrea Orlando, a parliamentarian of the Democratic Party, the largest in the opposition. “This is the latest attempt to use institutions for personal gain with a massacre of justice.”
Berlusconi, who is a defendant in corruption and tax fraud trials that have been effectively suspended, has repeatedly accused magistrates of being politically motivated leftists bent on destroying him. Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing in the two trials.
One is on charges of false accounting in the acquisition of television rights by his Mediaset broadcasting empire.
In the other he is accused of bribing British lawyer David Mills to give false testimony in 1997 to protect Berlusconi’s business interests.
Berlusconi is also at odds with investigative magistrates over his government’s 25 billion euro austerity budget. The spending blueprint would force them to take salary cuts along with other civil servants.
A national strike by magistrates on Thursday forced most court cases in Italy to stop. The stoppage is the latest in a series of labor action against government plans to cut the deficit.
The opposition says the cuts, which include reductions in local services and high toll rises, bleed workers while sparing the rich.
Additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli in Rome and Emilio Parodi in Milan