By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's parliament finally approved a contested reform of the justice system on Wednesday, ending more than two years of debate on an overhaul aimed at making it more difficult for criminals to avoid conviction.
The bill toughens sanctions for thieves and curbs the publication of wiretaps in investigations. The most contentious aspect involves lengthening the statute of limitations, which imposes deadlines on courts to complete legal proceedings.
An estimated 1.5 million cases have had to be dropped in Italy over the past 10 years, including thousands of trials involving alleged corruption, because of the limited time given to magistrates to prosecute suspects.
"I am very satisfied because it has been a very tiring, tortuous process," Justice Minister Andrea Orlando said in parliament.
Both defense lawyers and prosecutors have criticized various aspects of the bill, which was presented to parliament in 2014, and the government finally overcame deep-seated political resistance thanks to a confidence motion in the lower house.
The vote was won by 320 to 149, with one abstention, giving a boost to Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who has vowed to plow ahead with the government's reform program following the resignation of his predecessor Matteo Renzi in December.
Uniquely among advanced countries, Italy's statute of limitations starts from the moment an alleged crime is committed rather than from the point it is discovered, and the time limit is not extended when a defendant is indicted or sentenced.
Suspects have a right to two appeals in Italy and are not deemed guilty until the final court ruling is delivered, with trials often dragging on for many years, with lawyers looking to prolong proceedings to bring down the limitations guillotine.
Prosecutors say it is all but impossible to reach a definitive verdict for most financial crimes within the prescribed time frame, which is seldom more than eight years.
This is a major reason why, according to data issued by the Council of Europe, just 1 percent of inmates in Italian prisons are there for white collar crimes. That is one of the lowest rates in Europe and compares with 12 percent in Germany.
Under the reform, the statute of limitations would be suspended for 18 months between an initial conviction and the start of a first appeal, and suspended for another 18 months after a second conviction before the final appeal begins.
The changes are considered inadequate by many prosecutors, who say the time limit should be scrapped as soon as police open investigations into a suspect, as happens in Britain, or when a suspect is sent to trial, as in the United States.
On the other hand, many center-right politicians opposed any curbs on the statute of limitations, saying the legal system needed to be made more efficient and defendants should not face increased uncertainty over their fate.
(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones, editing by Isla Binnie and Jon Boyle)