Italian court tosses immunity act

Oct. 7, 2009 at 3:11 PM
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ROME, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- Italy's Constitutional Court Wednesday tossed a law passed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government that shielded him from prosecution while in office.

The ruling rejected the prime minister's bid to use the law to delay prosecution on numerous charges, including fraud, tax evasion and bribery, The Guardian reported.

The 15-judge panel's reasoning won't be available for several weeks, the British newspaper said. In the interim, observers said Italian government leaders must decide whether they will try to alter the constitution through another bill.

The judges ruled unconstitutional a law that provided immunity from prosecution to Italy's top four officials -- the president, the speakers of the two chambers of parliament and the prime minister -- while they were in office.

Initial, unconfirmed reports indicated the judges reached their decision because a constitutional reform was needed. During the hearing, Berlusconi's lawyers acknowledged that the immunity law breached the constitutional principle that all Italians were equal before the law, The Times of London reported.

"He is no longer 'first among equals,' but ought to be considered 'first above equals," attorney Gaetano Pecorella told the panel.

Opposition politicians said the "first above equals" argument was reminiscent of a theme in George Orwell's "Animal Farm" that "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

Berlusconi has been charged with corruption, tax fraud, false accounting and illegally financing political parties, but never convicted.

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