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It's been only three months since Italy's richest man was voted back into the prime minister's office, and today tens of thousands of Italians rallied against him in Rome's square. They were protesting government plans to push through new laws. Critics say these laws would be custom made to save Silvio Berlusconi from pending criminal cases. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has more.

(Soundbite of applause)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Despite scorching temperatures, Rome's baroque Piazza Navona was filled with thousands of people from all over Italy. They held up banners demanding equal justice for all. Actor Moni Ovadia said Berlusconi, the media tycoon, has never resolved his conflict of interest.

Mr. MONI OVADIA (Actor): We have a prime minister who has three national networks, is the richest man in the country, and he's ruling the country. So this is abhorrent in itself for democracy.

POGGIOLI: The rally was against government-proposed legislation. One bill would grant immunity to the four top officials in the country, including the prime minister. Critics say these bills aim to help Berlusconi overcome his longstanding judicial battles. He has faced corruption charges in the past. He's currently on trial for corruption in Milan and under investigation in Rome for bribery.

The current government also plans to ban judicial use of wiretaps and impose severe penalties on journalists and newspaper owners who publish their transcripts. Berlusconi claims he's being persecuted by politicized magistrates whom he describes as a cancer on the country. But one of the organizers of the protest rally, philosopher Paolo Flores D'Arcais, said Berlusconi is undermining the constitution.

Mr. PAOLO FLORES D'ARCAIS (Rally Organizer): It is aggression against the balance of power. It is an aggression against the free journalists. It is an aggression against the Western liberal countries.

POGGIOLI: Another rally organizer was Antonio Di Pietro, a former prosecutor turned politician. He accused the prime minister of focusing all his efforts on his own personal judicial and financial interests while ignoring the many economic and social problems afflicting the country, which is undergoing a severe recession.

Mr. ANTONIO DI PIETRO (Rally Organizer): (Speaking Italian)

POGGIOLI: We cannot accept this, Di Pietro said. Sooner or later we will use the law for referendum and we will repeal these bills that go against the collective good of the country.

One of the most applauded speakers was actress Sabina Guzzanti, celebrated for her scathing imitations of Italian politicians. Guzzanti focused on recent media reports of the existence of telephone calls in which Berlusconi can allegedly be heard making raunchy comments about an Italian showgirl, a glamorous showgirl, Mara Carfagna, he has since made a government minister.

Ms. SABINA GUZZANTI (Actress): (Speaking Italian)

POGGIOLI: She has to go, Guzzanti shouted. She shouldn't be in government, but especially she shouldn't be minister of equal opportunity. That is an insult.

While he was being pilloried in a Roman square, Berlusconi was the victim of an unflattering description on the other side of the world at the G-8 Summit in Tokyo. He was described in a White House press kit as a dilettante politician of a country known for government corruption and vice. The White House apologized for the insult as an unfortunate mistake.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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