ITALY appeared on the verge of a government crisis yesterday, little more than two months after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was sworn in.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni threatened to resign over the weekend over a government decree that changed key aspects of the Italian justice system, such as the use of preventive custody in jail. He claimed the decree issued was not what he had been told about in the Cabinet. ``We were deceived,'' Mr. Maroni said.
The decree retains preventive custody in jail for crimes such as murder, kidnapping, and drug trafficking, but imposes house arrest in cases involving abuse of public office. It puts a gag on the press, prohibiting the reporting of warnings issued by investigating magistrates to people under scrutiny.
The changes provoked four judges of the Clean Hands pool in Milan, which has been investigating political corruption and kickbacks for the last two-and-a-half years, to announce last Thursday that they were requesting transfers to other judicial assignments. Judge Antoni Di Pietro read a statement by the pool saying that the new rules seriously undermined their effectiveness as judges.
Judge Di Pietro became a national hero for exposing a pervasive system of kickbacks by Italian businessmen to politicians. Though the probes discredited an entire political class, most Clean Hands trials have yet to occur.
Public opinion is strongly against Mr. Berlusconi's decree. A poll published by L'Unitia yesterday showed that 72 percent of Italians regard the decree as unjust and that 77 percent think Di Pietro is in the right and Berlusconi in the wrong.
Thousands of Italians made phone calls and sent faxes to the news media expressing solidarity with Di Pietro, one of the four judges who asked to be transferred.
Maroni's party, the Northern League, and the neo-Fascist National Alliance, which are both coalition partners in the Berlusconi government, have announced their opposition to the decree as it stands. Italy's left announced it would mount a strong campaign in Parliament to defeat the decree.
Berlusconi defended the decree on Saturday in a news conference, which was carried live on one of the three TV stations he owns. He said he would request its modification to increase ``the concession of liberty,'' apparently indicating he favored letting even more people out of preventive custody.
Di Pietro said he was suing parliamentarian Vittorio Sgarbi for slander, after Mr. Sgarbi said that Di Pietro was to blame for suicides that came in the wake of the Clean Hands probes.
``Di Pietro, [Judge Gherardo] Colombo, [Judge Piercamillo] Davigo, and the others are assassins who have caused people to die and it's correct, therefore, that they leave,'' said Sgarbi, who is also a commentator on one of Berlusconi's TV stations. ``Fortunately, today, an era of incivility is finished.... Let them thank God that with this decree they themselves won't go to jail for all the assassinations they've committed.''
Government spokesman Giuliano Ferrara was more moderate. After the judges announced they wished to be transferred, Mr. Ferrara said that they should do what they believed was right and praised Berlusconi for his ``act of courage'' in issuing this decree, which Ferrara argued was making the Italian justice system more humane. Ferrara is the minister for parliamentary relations and a former broadcaster on Berlusconi's TV networks.
The opposition noted the issuance of the decree seemed to be timed to coincide with Italian popular preoccupation with the World Cup Soccer championship, in which Italy was scheduled to play yesterday in the final game against Brazil.