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Berlusconi takes on the Bench

Addressing the European People's Party congress in Bonn, Germany, on Thursday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi again strongly criticised Italian magistrates and the Constitutional Court, who, according to him, are politically influenced by the Left.

Mr Berlusconi chose the PPE platform and not the seat of some institution to launch a powerful attack, as a politician and not as the head of government, on the Italian Bench, which he describes as "a party of judges that wants to undermine the people's sovereignty".

That there is a serious political clash in Italy between judges and politicians as to how they think their relationship should be has been shown by a series of incidents which, put together, make up a mosaic of political behaviours, decisions and judgments, which exceed the limits of common sense and which involve, without exception, the whole institutional set-up.

In the last 20 years, Mr Berlusconi has been the subject of numerous criminal proceedings by the magistracy, none of which has been concluded with a definitive conviction. One should explain that, in some of these proceedings, Mr Berlusconi has taken advantage of laws approved by his parliamentary majority.

Mr Berlusconi is undoubtedly the one man in Italy who has been subjected to the greatest number of judicial proceedings, which range from the illegal financing of political parties, to drug trafficking, to mass slaughter and to embezzlement, corruption, false witness, support for Mafia activities, bribery of Customs officials and other crimes that are too numerous to mention.

All this seems to amount to a witch-hunt. Speaking at his party headquarters, Mr Berlusconi said: "Allow me to talk briefly about my country: Italy is the third largest economy in Europe, is governed by a strong and stable majority, a hard-working government and a super Prime Minister who enjoyed an approval rating of over 60 per cent after managing to solve the refuse disposal problem and of 68 per cent after the (Abruzzo) earthquake.

"Unfortunately, the Left has been attacking me by inventing falsehoods of all sorts against me but which, however, have made me stronger, because people say: 'My goodness, where do we find anyone as strong and tough-as-nails as Berlusconi?'

"Sovereignty in Italy today - and I do not think I am exaggerating - has passed from Parliament to the party of the judges. The Constitutional Court is no longer an institution that guarantees the citizen's rights but in Italy has become a political organ. The party of left-wing judges has turned to the Council of State, which is made up of 15 members, 11 of whom are left-wingers, and which repeals laws passed by Parliament. In effect, sovereignty has passed from Parliament to the party of judges."

The Association of Magistrates was quick to reply, stating in a brief note that: "Fortunately for everyone, Italian law and the Constitution in force provide for organs that guarantee and supervise the actions of any power or order, including the magistracy. Obviously, the Constitutional Court, as in any other country in the world which provides for it, judges the laws approved by parliamentary majorities of any political colour or orientation. And the Constitution, as any Civics handbook explains, places it among the organs guaranteeing the upholding of rights."

The language used is tough and hard-hitting and, undoubtedly, disproportionate but it gives a good idea of the clash that has to be seen in the light of the need to review the judicial system in Italy and its relationship with the Executive.

On Thursday too, the Chamber of Deputies, by 360 votes to 226 in a secret ballot, turned down a request for the arrest of the Undersecretary for the Economy, Nicola Cosentino, for complicity in Camorra (the Neapolitan Mafia) activities. The request was made by the court of Naples.

According to the Naples magistrates, Mr Cosentino's name had surfaced in the confessions of a businessman with ties to both the Camorra and to Forza Italia (Mr Berlusconi's former party), which, thanks to complicity and support of various kinds and at various levels, has allegedly "poisoned" an entire region, the Campania, for 20 long years, from 1987 to 2008.

The confessions were gathered by two journalists of the L'Espresso publishing house, part of the De Benedetti Group. The long battle between Carlo De Benedetti and Mr Berlusconi has been carried out between the two men's publishing houses without quarter. It had started with what has been described as the War of Segrate, a bitter judicial and financial clash that ended with a sentence, known as the Lodo Mondadori, where the judges allowed the Fininvest Group to take over the Mondadori publishing house.

Despite this judgment, things became more complicated when the editors and employees of some of the newspapers rebelled against their new owner. Giulio Andreotti, the Prime Minister at the time, intervened by calling the two parties and invited them to find an agreement. It was thus that La Repubblica, L'Espresso and some local newspapers and magazines reverted to De Benedetti's ownership while Panorama, Rete 4 and the rest of the Mondadori Group were retained by Fininvest, which also received a settlement of about €180 million.

Mr De Benedetti accused Mr Berlusconi of having bribed the judges of the Rome Tribunal in order to obtain a decision in his favour in the Lodo Mondadori case.

Mr Berlusconi was to be charged with corruption. However, the case was withdrawn after he became Prime Minister and this became the subject of an interminable dispute between the Milan court and the Prime Minister's office, which also led to controversial pronouncements by the Constitutional Court.

Then, on October 3 this year, the Milan Tribunal condemned Fininvest (Mr Berlusconi's holding company) to pay compensation amounting to some €750 million to Mr De Benedetti's CIR in damages for "missed opportunities". Four days later, the Constitutional Court declared as unconstitutional a law passed by Parliament, known as the Lodo Alfano, after the present Minister of Justice, which aimed to provide immunity from prosecution to the four highest official positions of the Republic: the President, the Prime Minister and the presidents of the Chamber of Deputies and of the Senate. This was in order to ensure the carrying out of their functions without undue interference.

In effect, this meant that Mr Berlusconi would not be obliged to undergo criminal proceedings in a court of law for the duration of his term. "After the Lodo Alfano was 'abrogated' by the Constitutional Court," Mr Berlusconi concluded, "the witch-hunt by certain magistrates has been resumed."

That the Constitutional Court is supposed to be an institution super partes was also contested in 1950 by the historical leader of the Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, who had cast doubt on the political neutrality of the members of the Constitutional Court and had mooted the idea that the judges should be directly elected by the people.

The aim of Mr Berlusconi's attack on the Constitutional Court and on the magistrates in Bonn seems to be to defend the actions of his government, which is subject to periodic attacks and attempts at delegitimisation which, according to him, are baseless, made by the Italian opposition in the European Parliament.

Reading the reports and gossip of a political nature one seems to be watching a comedy of equivocation and deceit in Italy, which has barely managed to close the chapter opened some years ago by a pool of magistrates in Milan that started with a judicial inquiry - nicknamed Mani Pulite by the press - and carried out at the national level in Italy during the 1990s.

From the findings, a perturbing picture emerged of widespread corruption, illegal financing of parties at the highest levels of the political and business world known as Tangentopoli. Those involved included ministers, MPs, senators, businessmen, even former prime ministers. A disgraceful campaign of delegitimisation based on suspicions rather than on hard evidence swept away all the parties in government, left the then Communist Party virtually intact, produced Umberto Bossi (leader of the Northern League) and did not touch the Movimento Sociale of Gianfranco Fini, which forms part of the governing coalition.

The Communist Party, after having changed its name and symbol no fewer than five times, has become an integral part of the Partito Democratico, together with L'Italia dei Valori, a party founded by Antonio Di Pietro, the former magistrate from the pool of Mani Pulite. They are now the staunchest defenders of the judges, the Constitutional Court and the current institutional set-up of the Italian state and they are openly supported by the newspapers of the De Benedetti Group.

"In Italy, something is happening which we need to see to: sovereignty, according to the Constitution, belongs to the people", Mr Berlusconi insisted in Bonn.

Indeed, Mr Berlusconi's speech in Bonn was not a sudden outburst by the Italian Prime Minister, who has been expressing these beliefs for some time, and who moves sure-footedly in the grounds of political amorality, far indeed from the immorality of gossip and quite different from the moralistic stance of a part of Italian public opinion, which is still the victim of a series of illusions such as the untouchability of the Constitutional Court, an upright magistracy above the parties and a political class of crystal-clear activity.

When Mr Berlusconi left the PPE headquarters he told someone who asked him for an explanation: "There is nothing to explain, I am sick and tired of hypocrisy, that's all..."

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