How Magnate's Trial Put Italy's Justice System in the Spotlight

Conviction last week of Berlusconi opens a debate: Do magistrates have too much political clout?

Silvio Berlusconi isn't a figure one might expect to draw much sympathy. The media tycoon at the head of Italy's right-wing opposition lives in a mansion and earns more money than most Italians consider decent.

Yet last week, when a court in Milan sentenced him to two years and nine months in jail on bribery charges, "political persecution" was the term his associates - and many ordinary Italians - used to describe his conviction.

It is unlikely that Mr. Berlusconi will go to jail. In Italy, sentences under three years are eligible for suspension.

During a 31-month investigation, prosecutors collected enough evidence to convince a three-judge panel that Berlusconi's media and financial holding company, Fininvest, had made a practice of keeping tax inspectors quiet by handing out kickbacks.

Top managers at Fininvest confirmed the practice, but told a vastly different story: Italy's public administration has become so corrupt that no businessman could ever hope to set up a business without paying somebody off. Asked about Berlusconi's involvement, his aides said he was never informed. The sums involved, they argued, had been too small.

Few Italians would dispute the evidence against Berlusconi. But the question many are asking is why - with some 2,000 business executives charged with bribery still waiting for their day in court - justice has been so speedy in Berlusconi's case.

Between 1992 and 1993, a sweeping probe by the magistrates, elite prosecutorial teams, brought down scores of politicians and jailed some 2,500 business executives. Of the latter, most are still awaiting preliminary hearings.

"Berlusconi is the only Italian with those kinds of financial responsibilities to have been tried and sentenced," says Simone Bemporad, a journalist with the Italian weekly Liberal. "We all know he's guilty. But by going after him, and only him, the magistrates have created a particularly unflattering image of themselves."

The suspicion, says Stanton Burnett, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, is that magistrates in Milan - and elsewhere in Italy - are "extremely politicized." Adds Mr. Burnett: "Most of them are old leftist radicals. They have protected some [people] and are determined to destroy others."

Indeed, politicians in the Berlusconi camp have been asking why the reformed Communist Party now sharing power was never made a target of investigations.

"[It] had the biggest budget in Italy. Everyone knows the money did not come from Ferris wheels in the summer," Burnett says.

But not everyone says that magistrates have dealt an uneven hand. In the uproar that followed Berlusconi's conviction, several leading members of the leftist coalition in power argued that the Berlusconi ruling came as the ultimate demonstration of juridical sobriety by treating a business leader like an ordinary citizen.

Many counter by asking why Giovanni Agnelli, the powerful head of automobile manufacturer FIAT, was never questioned when his own managers confessed to having bribed tax inspectors.

"Agnelli is an untouchable, and furthermore he's not the leader of Italy's right-wing coalition," says Frederic Hacourt, a Belgian journalist who has covered Italian politics for over a decade.

Analysts find the real point of interest to be the powerful political role magistrates have come to play. "I would venture to say that the current government is governing by permission of the magistrates," Burnett says. "It was a system [of corruption] in which everyone participated and the magistrates know enough to bring this government down at any time."

For those who believe Italy's magistrates have accumulated an unreasonable amount of power, the problem is how to restore the balance. A special parliamentary committee set up to reform Italy's Constitution had implicitly acknowledged the problem by proposing power-limiting amendments to the judicial system.

Neither of the amendments made it far: In June, Parliament's third attempt to reform Italy's 50-year-old Constitution failed spectacularly over a particularly bitter round of political bickering.

"I think what will be needed is a solid agreement between the leftist government and the opposition to change the Constitution in a way that makes magistrates accountable," Burnett says. "This can probably only be done through a constitutional convention."

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