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Friday, 2 August, 2002, 03:28 GMT 04:28 UK
Italian Senate passes disputed bill
Crowds outside the Senate; placard reads:
The bill has provoked widespread anger
Italy's Senate has backed a law that opposition members say will help Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi avoid corruption charges.

After a tempestuous debate in the Italian upper chamber, the bill was passed by 162 to nine votes amid cries of "shame" from opponents.

Dozens of opposition members of parliament walked out before the vote, while others wore blindfolds in protest.

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi is charged with bribing a judge
The bill will allow defendants to request that court cases be annulled or moved to another court if they have a "legitimate suspicion" that the judges are biased against them.

The measure will now go the lower house or chamber of deputies, who will debate it in September after the summer recess.

Mr Berlusconi faces trial in Milan later this year on charges of bribing a judge to win control of a food company in the 1980s.

A former aide and lawmaker from his Forza Italia party, Cesare Previti, faces similar charges.

Alleged bias

The two men say they are innocent and have asked for the trial to be moved from Milan, where they say they would not get a fair hearing because of the judges' alleged left-wing sympathies.

Opponents say the bill, which would apply to current court cases, is a ploy by Mr Berlusconi to escape the courts.

They say that if Mr Berlusconi argued that the judges were biased, he might be able to get the trial restarted - at which point the statute of limitations might dictate that he be acquitted.

The prime minister, who is Italy's richest man, has weathered legal storms in the past, mostly stemming from his vast media and business empire.

He has faced accusations of false accounting, bribery of tax police and illegally funding his political party.

Convictions overturned

Mr Berlusconi's first period as prime minister in 1994 came to an early end, partly because of corruption charges.

Three previous convictions for corruption and fraud have been overturned on appeal.

As the bill was discussed, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Senate, Italian media reported.

They were joined by opposition members of parliament who walked out of the chamber.

It follows a rally in the same place on Wednesday attended by thousands of people.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Raphael Jeserum reports
"Lacking the numbers to block the bill the opposition party walked out"
See also:

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