Rome, Jan 14 (IANS/AKI) In a setback for Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's apex court has struck down a key pillar of a law that gives the Italian prime minister temporary immunity from prosecution for corruption and fraud charges.
The Constitutional Court's panel of 15 judges ruled Thursday that Berlusconi and his cabinet could not automatically claim exemption from attendance of trials in progress against them owing to their official duties.
The judges were asked to decide whether the so-called 'legitimate impediment' law passed last year was compatible with the principle enshrined in the Italian constitution that all citizens are equal before the law.
In their ruling, the court said each trial judge could assess what could legitimately prevent the premier or other ministers from attending trials.
Opponents of Berlusconi who had gathered outside the court building in Rome waved the Italian flag on learning the judges' ruling, hailing it a triumph for the constitutional principle of equality.
The trials against Berlusconi should resume, Raffaele De Mucci, a political scientist at Rome's Luiss University, told AKI, saying he was not surprised by the court ruling.
'This is a compromise sentence that is typical of the Constitutional Court,' he said, adding that he doubted the ruling could bring down the government and trigger early elections.
Berlusconi is a defendant in three trials in the northern city of Milan where he faces charges of corruption, tax fraud and embezzlement. But these have in effect been suspended by the 'legitimate impediment' law.
As three out of four trial judges have been transferred elsewhere, the trials will have to start from scratch, meaning Berlusconi is unlikely to be convicted, according to De Mucci.
'The trials will take eight months to re-start, which means the charges against him are likely to lapse under Italy's statute of limitations, De Mucci said.
Berlusconi denies wrongdoing and has repeatedly stated that 'Leftwing' Italian judges are seeking to destroy him politically.
He said Wednesday that Thursday's court ruling would present 'no danger for the stability of the government', whose term of office runs until 2013.
'It really does not matter to me whether these trials are stopped or not,' he told reporters in Berlin Wednesday. 'I find the case laughable.'
Berlusconi claims he did not ask for the 'legitimate impediment' law, which was passed by parliament in March 2010 in the face of bitter opposition. It allows the prime minister and members of his cabinet to ask that trial hearings involving them be postponed because they will be too busy to attend.
Under the law, trial hearings can be postponed three times for periods of up to six months each, allowing a maximum suspension of 18 months, a provision the court ruled was unconstitutional.
In the first trial pending against Berlusconi, he is accused of bribing British lawyer David Mills to give false testimony in 1997, paying him $600,000 to lie under oath to protect the media tycoon's business interests.
Berlusconi is accused in the other two trials of tax fraud, false accounting and embezzlement in the acquisition of television rights by his Mediaset broadcasting empire.