ROME, Italy — Italy’s top court has cleared the way for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to stand trial on fraud and corruption charges after softening a temporary immunity law that protected him.
In an ambiguous decision today, the country’s Constitutional Court wiped out a clause that granted the prime minister automatic immunity, and ruled that judges should determine on a case-by-case basis whether Berlusconi should appear in court.
The court’s 15 judges decided that the so-called “legitimate impediment” law, which protected Berlusconi from facing three trials in Milan, should not automatically halt proceedings.
In a statement, the judges said that aspects of the law, which allowed cabinet ministers including Berlusconi to claim exemption from trial because of their official duties, breached the Italian Constitution.
The decision is bad news for the 74-year-old prime minister, who is fighting for his political survival after narrowly winning a confidence vote in parliament last month. It is certain to weaken him even further as he courts the country’s minor parties and individual members of parliament to ensure he has a ruling majority in a bid to avoid early elections.
“I think it is particularly damaging for him,” said Bjorn Thomassen, a professor at the American University in Rome. “It is likely to mean that Berlusconi will have to face these court cases and appear in court."
The ruling revives the premier’s battle with the nation’s judges. Since he was first elected prime minister in 1994, Berlusconi has virulently attacked them for what he considers a campaign to discredit him and says he has faced more than 100 different court cases.
While Berlusconi made no immediate comment and instead planned to make a televised statement on Friday, sources told the media he considered it “an acceptable compromise.” His political allies, however, wasted no time lambasting the judiciary.
Sandro Bondi, culture minister and key Berlusconi ally, said the court had established “the superiority” of judicial rulings over the democratic process.
“We are facing the overthrow of the foundation not only of our constitution, but of the fundamental principles of every democratic law,” Bondi told the press.
His views were echoed by another ministerial colleague.
"The real anomaly in Italy is certainly not Berlusconi, it's those who try to overturn the choice of Italians through actions which have nothing to do with politics," Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini said in a statement.
The court ruling had been sought by judges conducting three trials against Berlusconi over accusations related to his vast Mediaset broadcasting empire. The court previously rejected Berlusconi’s attempts to win immunity on two occasions — in 2004 and 2009 — and the government simply passed another law to protect the prime minister and other senior officials.
But with the wafer-thin majority Berlusconi now has in parliament he is unlikely to introduce a new immunity law and will have to rely on his team of lawyers to frustrate the legal process as he scrambles to secure his fragile majority.
Berlusconi is accused of paying his former lawyer David Mills a total of $600,000 to give false testimony, as well as of embezzling and tax fraud in connection with the sale of television rights.
Berlusconi denies all the charges against him, and might never stand trial. His legal haggles might delay proceedings until the statute of limitations kicks in.
As three out of four trial judges have been transferred elsewhere, the trials will have to start from scratch, meaning Berlusconi is unlikely to be convicted, said Raffaele De Mucci, a political scientist at Rome's Luiss University.
"The trials will take eight months to restart, which means the charges against him are likely to lapse under Italy's statute of limitations, ” De Mucci said.
On Wednesday Berlusconi said the stability of the government would not be affected by the judicial ruling and promised to "explain" to the Italian public how "ridiculous" he considers the trials in which he has been involved.
"There is no danger for the stability of the government, whatever the outcome of the Constitutional Court hearing," Berlusconi said after an Italy-Germany summit. "I will reveal to Italians what it's about and what will emerge is the sickness of our democracy in which judicial powers have overstepped their sphere.”
It is remarkable that the prime minister has for so long survived allegations of corruption, the collapse of his relationship with key political ally Gianfranco Fini and an array of sex scandals that would have sunk the leaders of other democratic countries. He won a third term as prime minister in a landslide election in 2008, two years after his center-right coalition was voted out of power.
The businessman, whose net worth is said to be more than $9 billion, is one of Italy’s most successful entrepreneurs and has always presented himself as an ordinary guy, a role model for the quintessential self-made man.
But Berlusconi has recently experienced a dramatic fall in popularity, and the court decision won’t help.
His lifestyle stands in stark contrast with most Italians feeling the effects of government budget cuts, rising unemployment and a grim economic outlook. That reality might mean his eventual downfall.
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