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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 19:26 GMT 20:26 UK
Berlusconi granted immunity
Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi's trial is likely to collapse
The Italian parliament has approved a law which will make Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi immune from prosecution as long as he holds the job.

The decision by the lower house of parliament to pass the immunity bill will almost certainly kill off a current corruption trial against Mr Berlusconi in Milan.

The upper house, the Senate, had already passed the bill.

Critics say the bill has been rushed through parliament to spare Mr Berlusconi the potential embarrassment of a guilty verdict during Italy's six-month presidency of the European Union which begins shortly.

The new law will ban any court proceedings against the holders of Italy's five most senior posts as long as they remain in office.

It is not intended to suspend the trials once and for all, but to enable the top state officials to mount a better, calmer and thorough defence
Francesco Nitto Palma
Forza Italia

By the time Mr Berlusconi has left his post, too much time will have elapsed for a resumption of the Milan trial to be legally possible.

His current term of office runs out in 2006, but he may seek re-election.

Mr Berlusconi is accused of trying to bribe judges to stop a business rival taking over state-owned food group SME in the 1980s.

Mr Berlusconi told the court on Tuesday that the charges against him were "fantasy".

Italy's opposition parties are furious at the immunity plan, describing it as unconstitutional.

But supporters of the law say it makes Italian law similar to that in many other countries, and merely restores rights which were removed in the "Clean Hands" anti-corruption drive a decade ago.

"It is not intended to suspend the trials once and for all, but to enable the top state officials to mount a better, calmer and thorough defence" if they do go to court, said Francesco Nitto Palma, of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

Court challenge?

The opposition might take its case to Italy's Constitutional Court, but any ruling would take months to make.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in court
Mr Berlusconi gave dramatic court evidence on Tuesday
Under the law, magistrates can investigate allegations against the five top figures, but cannot bring them to trial.

As well as the prime minister, the law also covers the president, the speakers in both houses of parliament and the president of Italy's constitutional court.

Mr Berlusconi is Italy's richest man, heading a multi-billion euro empire that encompasses broadcasting, banking, publishing and the AC Milan football club.

He says the corruption case in Milan is part of a left-wing campaign.

He likened the proceedings against him to a murder trial with missing key components.

"There is no body here, there is no murder weapon, there is no motive," he said.

The BBC's Frances Kennedy
"The passage of the immunity bill was a foregone conclusion"

Italians ponder Berlusconi law
18 Jun 03  |  Europe
Berlusconi in new court drama
17 Jun 03  |  Europe
Italian senate backs PM immunity
04 Jun 03  |  Europe
Berlusconi to be tried alone
16 May 03  |  Europe
Berlusconi set to ride out storm
30 Apr 03  |  Europe
Italian PM attacks judiciary
30 Jan 03  |  Europe

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