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Will Italy's sympathy for Berlusconi allow him to avoid corruption trials?

In Italy, sympathy for embattled Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after a Dec. 13 attack could prove a useful means of dividing the opposition, rebuilding his popularity, and manipulating the judicial system.

By Correspondent / December 21, 2009

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi waves from his car as he arrives at his home in Arcore, Italy, Thursday.

Luca Bruno/AP

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Rome

After being sued for divorce by his wife, accused of corruption in two long-standing trials, and alleged to have slept with a prostitute at his palazzo in Rome, it seemed as though 2009 couldn't get any worse for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

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But just when things appeared to have reached a nadir for the charismatic, yet controversial leader, he was dealt another crushing blow – literally.
But far from being a setback, the attack he sustained last Sunday when a man with a history of mental illness smashed a cheap but hefty souvenir model of Milan’s famous cathedral into his face, could turn out to be an early Christmas gift.

Sympathy for Berlusconi in the wake to the assault, which left him with a broken nose and two cracked teeth, is expected to prove a useful means of dividing the opposition, rebuilding his popularity, and manipulating the judicial system in such a way as to avoid two trials in which he is accused of corruption, false accounting, and other corporate abuses. Many political analysts also say that the attack could have a chilling effect on free speech, and trigger a return to hyper-bitter politics in a country still marked by a battle between the Left and Right that dates back to World War II.

“I think the effect will be as much psychological as practical," says Prof. Christopher Duggan, a Mussolini biographer and the head of modern Italian history at Britain’s Reading University. "It is already very difficult for newspapers to be openly critical of the government because journalists fear for their careers, and sympathy for Berlusconi will make it even more difficult for his opponents to speak out.”

A return to immunity for Berluconi?

Shortly after being re-elected prime minister last year, Mr Berlusconi’s center-right party pushed a law through parliament, where they enjoy a majority in both chambers, which gave him immunity from prosecution in office.

But in a heavy blow, Italy’s highest court slapped it down in October this year, ruling that it was unconstitutional and went against the principle that all citizens should be equal before the law.

Now Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party wants to introduce a revised law which would reinstate his immunity, with a bill expected to be presented to parliament this week.

The government also wants to introduce a new law which would limit the duration of trials to six years. According to Italy’s magistrates’ association, it could put an end to up to 100,000 trials which are slowly making their way through the country’s ponderous judicial system.

Either of the measures would enable Berlusconi to wriggle out of two corruption trials which were reactivated after the immunity law was quashed.

Both laws now stand a better chance of success than before the attack because widespread sympathy for Berlusconi has put the opposition, center-left Democratic Party, and opponents of the law within his own bloc, in an extremely difficult position.

The sympathy factor

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