Page last updated at 16:08 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 17:08 UK

Italy cabinet offers PM immunity

Silvio Berlusconi gestures, mocking having his hands in handcuffs
Mr Berlusconi is convinced he is being hounded by magistrates

The Italian cabinet of PM Silvio Berlusconi has passed a proposal to grant immunity to the highest ranking state officials while in office.

Under the measure, still to be approved by both houses of parliament, a serving prime minister cannot be prosecuted.

Critics of Mr Berlusconi have said the move is the latest attempt to shape the law to his own ends.

But he insists it will enable him to get on with his job unimpeded by what he says is a politicised judiciary.

On Thursday, he lashed out at Italian magistrates, labelling them a "cancerous growth".

The bill follows a controversial amendment, which has frozen many of Italy's trials, including corruption cases against Mr Berlusconi himself.

Italy's Justice Minister Angelino Alfano brushed aside criticism that the latest immunity bill was another tailored to the prime minister's circumstances.

He said the change would allow the prime minister - who has been dogged by legal investigations into his broad span of business and media interests for 15 years - to concentrate on the job in hand.

On ice

"If he wanted to act in self-interest, he would defend himself by attending all hearings against him," Mr Alfano said.

"But this would be a major distraction from the job of government."

A similar law passed by Mr Berlusconi five years ago was subsequently thrown out by the country's constitutional court and proceedings against him were reactivated.

Under the current proposal, the four highest ranking public officials - including the president, prime minister and the two parliamentary speakers would be immune from prosecution during their mandates.

The statute of limitations would be frozen during this period, allowing trials to be started or continue at the end of their terms.

The immunity bill is expected to go before parliament in July and be approved either before the summer break, or when parliament reconvenes in September.

A separate bill, that would freeze all trials concerning alleged offences that carry a sentence of less than 10 years, is currently before parliament.

The government says it will free up court time to deal with the most serious cases.

Mr Berlusconi's opponents say it is designed to help him in his legal battles with the nation's courts by putting some long-running trials on ice, including one involving him in Milan.

Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
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