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Italy court weakens law temporarily providing immunity for public officials

The Italian Constitutional Court [official website, in Italian] on Thursday struck down portions of a law [matierials, in Italian] backed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] that would have granted Berlusconi and other public officials temporary immunity from charges while in office. The law, as passed by the Italian senate [JURIST report] in March, allowed cabinet officials to postpone criminal proceedings against them for up to 18 months if the charges constituted a "legitimate impediment" to performing public duties. After holding hearings [JURIST report] on Tuesday, the court ruled in a vote of 12–3 to modify the law to allow up to a six–month postponement of charges, and gave the court the power to assess the severity of the charges in relation to how much they would disrupt state business. They found the original law in violation of Article Three of the Italian Constitution [text], which provides that "all citizens have equal social status and are equal before the law." The Court declared the original law [La Repubblico report, in Italian], an "unreasonable disparity between the rights of defense and the needs of jurisdiction." The constitutional review of the law was sought by judges in Milan [JURIST report] where Berlusconi is charged in two cases on corruption and tax fraud.

The proceedings mark the third time an immunity law protecting Berlusconi has been submitted to constitutional review. Laws submitted to the Constitutional Court in January 2004 and in October 2009 [JURIST reports] were both determined to be unconstitutional. In April 2010, Italian prosecutors sought to indict Berlusconi [JURIST report] on fraud and embezzlement charges involving his media company. The law granting Berlusconi immunity was approved [JURIST report] by the Chamber of Deputies [official website, in Italian] in February. In January, hundreds of Italy's judges walked out of their courtrooms to protest the passage of legislation that placed strict time limits [JURIST reports] on the trial and appeals process. Both laws have been criticized as being tailored for Berlusconi's benefit. He currently faces corruption and tax fraud trials, both of which have been postponed [JURIST report]. The leader has been previously acquitted of false accounting and bribery, and has had other charges against him dropped [JURIST reports].

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