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City Desk
16 April, 2010  
Silvio's law

How the law can be corrupted by a corrupt emperor … Silvio Berlusconi’s extraordinary struggle with the Italian justice system … Our Roman affairs correspondent reports

“I am the universal record-holder of trials in the entire history of man.”

imageThis quote from Silvio Berlusconi was proudly pronounced at the G8 2008 conference in Hokkaido by the Italian prime minister himself.

According to Berlusconi:

“789 prosecutors and magistrates took interest in the politician Berlusconi from 1994 to 2006 with the aim of subverting the votes of the Italian people … a Calvary including 577 visits to police, 2,500 court hearings and 174 million euro in lawyers’ bill paid by me.”

That was in June 2008. We suspect the bill would have doubled by now.

Unlike Jesus, Silvio has not peacefully accepted his Calvary, deciding instead to free himself as much as he possibly can of the tormenting judicial machine.

He has now developed quite a system to do this.

Berlusconi has been involved in 16 criminal trials, a rather remarkable number for a prime minister.

The accusations include bribing judges, false accounting, tax fraud, money laundering, mafia involvement and trying to corrupt senators from the opposition.

To this day, he has never been sentenced even though on nine occasions he was found guilty.

Either appeal courts overturned the verdicts or the crime for which he was found guilty was decriminalised by a subsequent enactment of the Italian parliament.

How does he do it?

He appears to have two main strategies.

First, the use of statutory limitation. Because for many of these crimes he has never been sentenced the ultimate outcome is that he is not guilty.

Marco Travaglio, implacable in denouncing Italian corruption, provides some of the background.

imageThe second strategy involves passing specific laws, labelled by the opposition as ad personam, tailored to suit the prime minister’s interests.

According to the opposition, Berlusconi’s government has pushed through 18 of these laws in 15 years.

Eight of them were designed to protect or promote his business, 10 to keep him out of legal troubles.

One of these laws went through parliament in March. It seeks to suspend trials against government officials on the ground that prosecutions would “impede” their official duties.

Giuseppe D’Avanzo, a senior journalist with the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica, maintains that, “Berlusconi rewrote procedural rules by changing their terms, and by changing the legal procedure itself”.

According to D’Avanzo:

“Berlusconi has created laws to abolish certain crimes (false accounting) and to remove judges from office (legitimate suspicion). He abolished rogatory letters (where a judge can ask another judge in another city to question someone). And pushed through parliament laws designed to keep himself out of trouble.”

The perfect example is the law approved by the Senate in January to shorten the time allowed for trials.

Described by the opposition as “the death of justice”, it essentially freed Berlusconi of the Mills case, an offshoot to the All Iberian trial, where he was accused of paying bribes to the former prime minister Bettino Craxi (almost US$20 million dollars in the 1980s).

The legislation also got rid of the trial for bribes allegedly paid to financial officers by his television company Mediaset.

The New York Review of Books had something to say about this on April 8.

Thanks to the “death of justice” law tens of thousands of small-time criminals will also be set free.

Wikipedia has tried to assemble a comprehensive list of Berlusconi’s acrobatic hi-jinks with the law.

Other provisions introduced by Berlusconi’s government include the “legitimate suspicion” law.

This allows an accused to transfer the case to a different city and court on the ground of suspicion about the impartiality of the judge in cases involve fraudulent accounting.

Legislation was introduced three times to shelter the top five political figures of the state from being put on trial.

The most recent version restored the eligibility of candidates who could not have run for the regional elections, either because they had overrun their mandates or because they had not registered correctly with the electoral office.

imageOut of 16 trials, only three times was the Italian prime minister actually acquitted.

Some of the reasons given are imaginative.

For instance, in the Medusa Cinema false accounting case it was found that Berlusconi could not have noticed that one million dollars of taxation had gone missing because he is so rich.

In nine other trials the judges had to accept the fact that the crime was not a crime anymore, because it had been decriminalised by parliament, or that the crime could no longer be subject to judgment because time had run out – thanks to the new law shortening the duration of trials.

One battle Berlusconi has not won is his libel suit against The Economist (nicknamed by him the “Ecommunist”).

In 2001 the British magazine wrote that the Italian prime minister was “corrupted and unfit for office”.

Fortunately for the prime minister, it was not a case that had tricky criminal implications.

It just added another station to his Calvary.

Silvia Greco reporting