ROME (Reuters) - Italy's president urged parliament on Tuesday to ease chronic overcrowding in prisons by pardoning thousands of people convicted of minor crimes.
The country's populist 5-Star Movement accused him of suggesting the reforms to help Silvio Berlusconi, the beleaguered center-right leader convicted of tax fraud.
But President Giorgio Napolitano dismissed the allegation, saying urgent action was needed to fix "galling" conditions that the European Court of Human Rights in January ruled violated prisoners' rights.
"The pressing need to change the conditions of prisons is a legal, political and moral imperative," the president said in a message read out by the speakers of the Senate and lower house.
"The Strasbourg court's decision is a mortifying confirmation of the continuing inability of the Italian system to guarantee basic rights," he added.
Rights group Antigone says 67,000 people are languishing in what it calls the most crowded jails in the European Union, built to hold just 45,000.
Napolitano suggested courts should start imposing prison sentences for minor crimes less often, and people already in prison for minor crimes could be freed.
"This is the first step to pardoning Berlusconi with the excuse of solving overcrowding in prisons," the 5-Star Movement's lower house leader Riccardo Nuti said in a Facebook post.
Another member said he believed the pardons for less serious crimes like Berlusconi's were being offered as part of a deal to repay the former prime minister for reversing a decision to pull his ministers out of the fragile coalition government last week.
"The moment has arrived to repay the debts," 5-Star deputy Matteo Mantero wrote on Facebook. "This is how they are repaying Berlusconi for not having collapsed the government."
Berlusconi risks expulsion from the Senate later this month over a conviction for tax fraud at his Mediaset empire, for which he was given a four-year sentence, commuted to one year which will likely be served in community service. He is appealing against two separate convictions.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta said the government would do its best to put the president's plan into action, calling his words "beyond reproach".
Napolitano said his critics were obsessed with one topic and did not care about the country's true problems.
Italy released thousands of prisoners in an amnesty in 2006 aimed at reducing overcrowding, but the jails soon filled up again due to a slow-moving justice system and the cash-strapped state's failure to build more.
(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary and Antonella Cinelli; Editing by Andrew Heavens)