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Italy lower house approves bill effectively cutting Berlusconi bribery trial short

The Italian Chamber of Deputies [official website, in Italian] approved legislation [C.3127-A materials, in Italian] by a vote of 314-296 Wednesday to shorten the statute of limitations for criminal trials of defendants who do not have prior convictions. The Italian Senate [official website, in Italian] passed a similar version [S.1880 materials, in Italian] last January, to protect citizens against an infinite duration of judicial processes. The bill [fact sheet, in Italian] is part of a comprehensive reform of the judiciary headed by Italy's Minister of Justice Angelino Alfano [official website, in Italian], to bring the justice system in accordance with Article 111 of the Italian Constitution and Article 6 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms [texts]. However, critics argue that the legislation is an attempt by the supporters of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi [official website, in Italian; JURIST news archive] to keep him out of jail [Reuters report]. The measure, still needing final approval by the Senate, would shorten the statute of limitations in a bribery case to six or eight months—effectively ending Berlusconi's bribery trial by this summer. Berlusconi is accused of paying his British lawyer David Mills [The Independent profile] USD $600,000 to falsely testify in court about his business dealings. Berlusconi currently has four active trials pending against him.

The Italian Parliament [official website, in Italian] has previously attempted to shield Berlusconi from trial, passing a law [materials, in Italian; JURIST report] last March that granted the premier and other public officials temporary immunity from charges while in office. In January, the Italian Constitutional Court [official website, in Italian] held hearings and subsequently struck down [JURIST reports] portions of the law, finding it in violation of Article 3 of the Italian Constitution [text], which provides that "all citizens have equal social status and are equal before the law." The constitutional review of the law was sought by judges in Milan [JURIST report], where Berlusconi is charged in two cases on corruption and tax fraud. On Monday, Berlusconi attended a hearing [JURIST report] in Milan to defend himself against charges that his media empire, Mediaset [corporate website, in Italian], purchased television rights for US movies through offshore companies and falsely declaring the costs on its taxes. Last month, Berlusconi attended a separate hearing [JURIST report] to defend himself against charges of inflating the price paid to buy television rights for Mediaset to fund political activities. Prior to that hearing, Berlusconi had not attended a case hearing for more than seven years. The recent appearances are a rarity for Berlusconi who has been a defendant in close to 50 trials but has consistently stayed away from court. Last week, Berlusconi failed to attend a trial [JURIST report] on charges against him for abusing the power of his office and allegedly offering cash and jewels in exchange for sex with 17-year-old Moroccan-born Karima El Mahroug, known as Ruby. In addition to the payments, Berlusconi also allegedly called police to secure Ruby's release while she was detained on an unrelated suspicion of theft. In February, an Italian judge ordered Berlusconi to stand trial [JURIST report] on the charges of paying for sex with a minor and abuse of power.

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