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Italy's Berlusconi Battles For Immunity Law

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Italy's Berlusconi battles for immunity law as bribery trial nears end

By TOM RACHMAN, Associated Press

ROME (May 7, 2003 4:10 p.m. EDT) - Weeks before taking the world stage, Italy's Premier Silvio Berlusconi is scrambling to end the embarrassment of his bribery trial, pushing with publicity and governmental might for an immunity law to block the case as long as he's in office.

A judgment in the criminal case could come during Italy's six-month term as rotating European Union president, which begins July 1. The billionaire businessman says the immunity law is needed now for the good of the nation.

The premier, accused of bribing judges to rule in his favor in the sale of a state-owned food company in the 1980s, denies the charges and argues that left-leaning prosecutors are trying to topple him and his conservative allies. He says he got involved in the potential sale at the request of then-Premier Bettino Craxi.

Berlusconi, Italy's richest man and first sitting premier to testify as a defendant in a criminal trial, warned that the lack of immunity for elected officials threatened to undermine the nation. The charges stem from before he was a politician.

"I act as I do regarding parliamentary immunity not in the name of my alleged personal interests but in those of the country," the premier wrote in Wednesday's Corriere della Sera, Italy's largest newspaper. "We must intervene."

Berlusconi has a large majority in both houses of parliament, and should be able to pass the immunity measure. His efforts to do so have intensified in recent days.

He made a lengthy speech at his bribery trial this week - his first statement during the three-year proceedings. He recently wrote two letters to newspapers denouncing the justice system and made his case on state radio.

Italy's politicians had immunity from prosecution until it was revoked in 1993 amid the "Clean Hands" scandal that uncovered widespread political corruption and toppled Craxi.

Berlusconi argues that repealing immunity was a mistake that opened up politicians to politically motivated charges.

"A certain part of the judiciary uses the powers granted by law not to do justice, but to attack and eliminate from the political scene those who are considered political opponents," Berlusconi said Wednesday on a state radio show.

There are two immunity proposals: one that would block trials against the country's top five officials - the premier, the president, the leaders of both houses of parliament and the chief of the constitutional court; and another that also would restore immunity for members of parliament.

Berlusconi says the government will start with the limited-immunity proposal but eventually should bring in the broader measure.

Berlusconi has faced several criminal cases related to his business empire, which includes television stations, film and advertising companies, publishing, real estate and one of the nation's most successful soccer teams.

He has always maintained his innocence. In previous cases, he has been acquitted or his convictions reversed on appeal or annulled because of the statute of limitations.

Italy's center-left opposition, which barely disguises its loathing of the premier, has taken the immunity issue as an opportunity to crank up its normal denunciations.

"Italy is at risk. We risk sliding into a regime without realizing it," opposition leader Francesco Rutelli told the newspaper La Repubblica.

Columnist Beppe Severgnini said both sides are exaggerating.

"The left has always said that the Italian judiciary is correct and that we should be quiet. This isn't true," he said. "When Berlusconi says they're utterly biased and 'Clean Hands' was a coup d'etat, that is completely wrong. The left tends to simplify, but less than Berlusconi."

Berlusconi's view has support among some Italians, Severgnini said. But overseas, it may not look so good.

"Many Italians believe him," Severgnini said, "while many foreigners don't."

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Berlusconi argues that repealing immunity was a mistake that opened up politicians to politically motivated charges.

"A certain part of the judiciary uses the powers granted by law not to do justice, but to attack and eliminate from the political scene those who are considered political opponents," Berlusconi said Wednesday on a state radio show.

This is true. I personally am not sure if I believe him, however I would agree with the immunity law. Italy is fascist and what most do not realize is that without this law it would make it easier then it already is to bribe judges. Its very ironic the very thing they are accusing him of doing is what they would be making easier to accomplish if immunity does not exist. I do not think I made much sense, hehe. But that is in fact the reality of it all.

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