Italy's highest court has ruled that Prime Minister Berlusconi cannot automatically be exempt from standing trial for alleged corruption. The court partially overturned a law shielding him from prosecution.
Berlusconi may soon find himself back in court again
Italy's constitutional court on Thursday partially struck down a law that has allowed Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi to avoid criminal prosecution while in office.
The court ruled that the prime minister could not automatically invoke a "legitimate impediment" claim exempting him and cabinet ministers from attending trails in progress because of their official duties as members of the government. In a statement, the judges branded the clause as "illegitimate."
The new ruling will instead allow individual judges to decide whether Berlusconi can be forced to face trial.
The law in question had been passed last year and allowed cabinet ministers, including Berlusconi, to claim exemption from going to court.
Berlusconi supporters criticize ruling
A spokesman for Berlusconi’s PDL party dismissed the ruling. The decision "will not have any repercussions" on the prime minister, who was "chosen by the majority of the Italian people," Daniele Capezzone said, referring to the April 2008 general elections that brought the premier back to power.
Berlusconi is accused of corruption, tax fraud and money laundering
Culture Minister Sandro Bondi condemned the court for "establishing that the judiciary is superior to the established democratic order."
Silvio Berlusconi faces several trials with charges including corruption, tax fraud, false accounting and illegally financing political parties.
Two of those trials, one for tax fraud by his Mediaset business empire and another for suspected bribery, were suspended last year when the government adopted a temporary law preventing him from being prosecuted while he was in power.
Too late for justice?
However, Deutsche Welle correspondent Megan Williams in Rome said the new ruling does not automatically mean trouble for Berlusconi.
"The chances of the prime minister being found guilty in any of those cases are very slim," she said.
"Berlusconi has in the past faced many charges and has gone to court many times for corruption and tax fraud. But he has never been found guilty of anything so far. And those ongoing trials are very likely to have already expired under the statute of limitations."
Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper also warned the trials were "so behind by now that they are almost certainly destined to run out of time" under the statute of limitations.
But with Berlusconi's government in crisis, the prospect of the prime minister in court could prompt a fresh crisis and commentators speculate it could even spark early elections. In December, Berlusconi only survived a vote of no confidence in parliament by a very close margin.
Author: Andreas Illmer (dpa, Reuters, AFP)
Editor: Rob Turner