Italian Court Strips Prime Minister Of Legal Immunity

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi i i

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi passes an honor guard shortly before the country's highest court ruled that he is not immune from prosecution in criminal cases. He could face trial on corruption charges. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi passes an honor guard shortly before the country's highest court ruled that he is not immune from prosecution in criminal cases. He could face trial on corruption charges.

Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Italy's highest court has overturned a law that protected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from prosecution, a decision that could reopen a number of criminal court cases against the 73-year-old media mogul and throw Italian politics into turmoil.

The immunity law, passed shortly after Berlusconi regained power in elections last year, shielded him from prosecution in several cases, including one in which he was accused of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for false testimony.

The Constitutional Court said the immunity law, which protected the prime minister, the president and two speakers of Parliament, violated the principle that all Italian citizens are equal before the law.

Berlusconi, a multibillionaire, has remained popular with Italian voters despite a series of scandals involving alleged sex parties and prostitutes at his estates.

He appeared on television shortly after the ruling was announced Wednesday to proclaim "Long live Italy! Long live Berlusconi!" and to declare that he will not step down. Berlusconi's spokesman said the Constitutional Court's decision was politically motivated.

The main case against Berlusconi stems from the late 1990s, when he was accused of paying a bribe of more than $600,000 to obtain the false testimony of a British lawyer in two other corruption cases.

The lawyer, David Mills, has already been convicted of corruption and was sentenced in February to 4 1/2 years in prison. He is appealing the sentence.

Another case involves charges that Berlusconi offered bribes to a number of Italian senators to get them to switch to his side when he was the leader of the opposition.

Federiga Bindi, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, said it would not be a good thing for Berlusconi to resign in the face of the court decision. Because the opposition is fractured and weak, the collapse of the government would cause a very unstable political climate and create openings for extremists, she said.

Bindi, who is an adviser to Italy's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that if Berlusconi fell from power, the result could harm U.S. interests.

"Some of the parties would call for Italy's withdrawal from the NATO mission in Afghanistan," she said.

A new Italian government might also reject Italy's current plan to take in at least six of the prisoners currently being held at Guantanamo Bay, Bindi said, adding, "the U.S. has nothing to gain from a change in government today."

NPR's Rome correspondent, Sylvia Poggioli, noted that Berlusconi personally controls or politically influences most television outlets in a country where 80 percent of voters get their news entirely from television. "The main state-run TV news hasn't covered the sex scandals at all," she said, "so many Italians don't know that much about it."

Poggioli said the court decision will probably make Berlusconi more of a lame duck in Italian politics, but she added that he will probably fight hard to avoid stepping down.

"He may try early elections" while Italy's center-left parties are still in disarray and can't take advantage of his weakness, she said.

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