Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Thursday, 4 February 2010

Berlusconi trial delay bill backed by Italy MPs

Silvio Berlusconi
The opposition says the bill aims to shield Mr Berlusconi

Italian politicians have backed a bill that would allow PM Silvio Berlusconi to delay prosecutions against him.

The law would allow senior government figures claiming "legitimate impediment" to have trials against them postponed for up to 18 months.

Approved by the lower house on Wednesday, the bill still needs to be passed by Italy's upper house. The PM has a majority in both houses.

Mr Berlusconi currently faces two trials, but denies any wrongdoing.

He has faced numerous prosecutions in recent years, but has always either been acquitted, had his convictions overturned on appeal, or benefited from cases expiring under the statute of limitations.

Seeking immunity

The opposition says the latest bill is meant specifically to shield Mr Berlusconi from prosecution.

"There is a prime minister who does not want to be judged and blocks Italy in a foolish war between politics and the judiciary," said Pierlugi Bersani, head of the opposition Democratic Party.

Proponents of the bill say it will modernise Italy's justice system, while protecting the prime minister from what they say are politically motivated charges.

The bill states that a government minister can "legitimate impediment" can invoke a six-month suspension, which can be renewed twice, delaying a trial for a possible 18 months.

Shortly after Mr Berlusconi was elected for a third term as prime minister in 2008, a law was passed granting him immunity from prosecution while in office, but that was overturned by Italy's constitutional court last October.

Critics say the "legitimate impediment" law is just a stopgap measure while his allies prepare new immunity legislation.

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