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Italian Court Strikes Down Berlusconi Immunity - 2004-01-13

Italy's Constitutional Court has ruled that a recently enacted law giving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi immunity from prosecution is illegitimate and must be revoked. The court's decision is a severe setback for the Italian leader.

The court's ruling means that Mr. Berlusconi's corruption trial in Milan, which was halted last June after Parliament approved the controversial immunity law, will have to resume. But it is not yet clear when that will happen.

The prime minister stands accused of bribing judges to win a favorable ruling in a corporate takeover during the 1980s, long before he entered politics.

The immunity law, which applied not only to Mr. Berlusconi, but also to Italy's chief of state and to the heads of its two legislative chambers and the Constitutional Court, was approved by Parliament just before Italy took over the rotating presidency of the European Union in July.

Mr. Berlusconi's critics suggested that the immunity law was passed to shield the prime minister from any potential guilty verdict, especially during the Italian EU presidency, which ended in December.

Mr. Berlusconi, who has had legal troubles for years, has always denied any wrongdoing. The billionaire media magnate says he is the victim of a vendetta by left-wing judges.

The Constitutional Court, in a written statement, said the immunity law violates the principle that all citizens are equal before the law.

Some Berlusconi opponents had been collecting signatures for a popular referendum that would have allowed voters to determine whether the immunity law should be repealed. But the court's ruling makes the referendum unnecessary.