Italy's lower house on Wednesday approved a law that could effectively block trials against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for up to 18 months, a move the opposition says is his latest attempt to avoid prosecution.
The lower house approved the measure voting 316 in favour and 239 against. It now moves to the upper house Senate.
Known as the "legitimate impediment law", it allows the prime minister or members of his cabinet to ask that trial hearings be postponed on grounds that they will be too busy with government work to attend.
The hearings can be postponed three times for periods of up to six months each, meaning that the two trials Berlusconi is currently facing can be suspended for as much as 18 months.
The law, which will remain in effect for 18 months after it is approved by the Senate, effectively strips a judge of the power to reject a request for postponement.
One centre-left opposition leader, ex anti-graft magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, called it "the murder of legality".
"It's one thing to say you are legitimately impeded (from attending a trial) because you've broken your leg and are in hospital and another to say 'I'm a minister and my job impedes me from going to court'," Di Pietro said.
But Fabrizio Cicchitto, leader of Berlusconi's party in the lower house, said that without the law, Berlusconi would have to spend several days a week in court.
The Democratic Party, the largest in the opposition, as well as Di Pietro's Italy of Values Party, voted against the measure. The small centrist Union of Christian Democrats (UDC) abstained.
Government wants to change constitution
The centre-right government wants to use the 18 months the law is in effect to prepare a constitutional amendment that would give immunity to the four top institutional figures -- the president, prime minister and two speakers of parliament.
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.
That ruling allowed two suspended court cases against him to resume and since then the government has introduced a series of proposals to reform the justice system.
One, the so-called "short trial" draft bill, which passed in the Senate last month and still has to go to the lower house, would drastically cut the duration of trials.
Because of its retroactive effect, that law 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.
But the short trial bill has upset magistrates because it 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.
The opposition was split in Wednesday's vote. The UDC abstained, calling it "the lesser of two evils" compared to the short trial bill, which it opposes.
Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing in his two current trials.
One is on charges of false accounting in the acquisition of TV rights by his Mediaset television 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.
ReutersLast Mod: 04 Şubat 2010, 08:36