Italian trial-length bill could help Berlusconi

AP News
Posted: Nov 12, 2009 9:39 AM

Italy's parliament was considering a controversial bill Thursday that would limit the length of trials, with critics saying it was drafted to help Premier Silvio Berlusconi with his legal problems.

The legislation, drafted by Berlusconi's allies and spearheaded by his chief lawyer, reached the floor of parliament after days of late-night negotiations and tension within Berlusconi's coalition.

Later this month, two trials in which Berlusconi is a defendant are set to resume in Milan.

The proposal triggered accusations that are very familiar for Berlusconi, who has a history of legal woes related to his business interests in Milan: Critics say the measure is tailor-made for the premier; his allies say it is good for the country.

The bill would cap the length of certain trials at six years, from the first verdict through two rounds of appeals. Among other restrictions, the measure would apply only to crimes that carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years. It could not be used by repeat offenders or for crimes such as criminal association or child pornography.

Still, according to estimates by Italy's magistrates association reported Thursday, the new legislation would bring to an end 100,000 trials over the next two years. According to the financial daily Il Sole 24Ore and other reports, both Berlusconi trials would be covered.

In one of the pending trials, Berlusconi is accused of tax fraud involving his broadcaster Mediaset's purchase of TV rights. The trial was set to resume Nov. 16, but the premier's lawyers have reportedly sought to have it postponed on grounds that Berlusconi is busy with a global food summit in Rome.

The other corruption trial is scheduled for Nov. 27.

Berlusconi denies all the charges. He has long maintained that his legal woes are the result of politically motivated hatred by Italian magistrates.

Italy's trials are notoriously slow and inefficient, and it typically takes several years to exhaust all three stages of appeal _ leading to frequent calls for an overhaul of the justice system. But discussion of the issue has for years been overshadowed by Berlusconi's legal problems.

"Berlusconi doesn't care about acting to cut the length of the trial," charged Antonio Di Pietro, a former prosecutor turned opposition lawmaker and one of Berlusconi's fiercest critics. "The premier only wants to extinguish his own trials before a verdict he fears might be a conviction."

Berlusconi's allies deny such accusations, and say the bill is needed to speed up the slow-moving trial process and new measures will follow. They note that Italy has been rebuked in the European Court of Human Rights for its long trials.

The new measures were drafted after a top Italian court last month overturned a law granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while in office. The decision paved the way for Berlusconi's Milan trials to resume.

Berlusconi vowed to fight on against what he said are communist magistrates. But his attacks on the judiciary and the prospect of new measures that might be perceived as being solely in his interest have angered some of his own allies. Earlier this week, reluctant ally Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, gave crucial backing to the bill.