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Berlusconi allies seek trial freeze

Published: 10:21AM Tuesday June 17, 2008 Source: Reuters

Italian lawmakers loyal to Silvio Berlusconi tried to introduce legislation dubbed the "premier-saving" rule that could save him from possible conviction for graft by suspending long-running trials for non-violent crimes.

Two senators from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party made last-minute amendments to a proposed crime-fighting decree that would suspend for a year all trials for crimes committed before mid-2002, except those involving violence, the Mafia, workplace accidents or crimes punishable by more than 10 years in jail.

The sponsors say the aim is to help the courts fight serious crime by freeing them from a backlog of lesser offences, like a kickbacks case dating from 1997 against Berlusconi and British lawyer David Mills, estranged husband of a cabinet minister.

Berlusconi's critics say it is the latest in a long line of attempts to protect the business interests of the Berlusconi family's media empire Mediaset.

"The 'premier-saving' amendment ... clearly shows, once again, that personally-tailored laws are a constant in Berlusconi's government programme," said communist politician Pino Sgobio.

Shadow Justice Minister Lanfranco Tenaglia said the proposals reflected "the prime minister's perennial conflict of legal interests."

The media tycoon, who has not been convicted in many cases so far - either by acquittal or because time has run out - is charged with paying Mills $600,000 to withhold incriminating details of his business dealings. Both deny any wrongdoing.

The case would have expired earlier this year under Italy's statute of limitations, but in January a Milan court ruled that the accusations could cover events up until early 2000, which potentially extends the deadline for another two years.

With speculation of an imminent sentence, the 71-year-old conservative leader, who won a third term in office in April's election, wants an urgent solution to a trial that he says undermines his leadership.

In a letter to the speaker of the Senate released by his office on Monday night, a combative Berlusconi said he would ask his cabinet to approve a resolution backing the controversial amendment.

The letter attacked Milan magistrates, calling them "extreme leftists" who had put on "fanciful trials" against him for political reasons.

The amendments were presented by PDL senators Carlo Vizzini and Filippo Berselli, who chair the upper house committees on constitutional affairs and justice, respectively.

The centre-right government also plans to try to revive a draft law it attempted to pass in 2003, during Berlusconi's last spell in office, giving immunity from prosecution from the five highest elected officials in the land, including the premier.

At the time it was rejected as unconstitutional for going against the principle of equality before the law for everyone.

In his letter to the Senate president, Berluconi also said the cabinet would put forward a new draft law on immunity for high-ranking officials.