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By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, set to go on trial this month, Tuesday won backing for a radical justice reform just as judges issued an arrest warrant for a senior aide on charges of Mafia collusion.
Lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini said after meeting Berlusconi that they agreed to present soon a draft law putting time limits on trials -- one of Berlusconi's key demands in his fight against judges he says are biased against him.
Berlusconi has demanded that his allies commit themselves to protecting him from what he calls an onslaught by "communist" magistrates and judges.
Fini, a leader of one of the major factions in the centre-right coalition, said the law would impose a total six year limit on the three stages of court cases -- initial trial, first appeal, and final appeal. Trials in Italy can last for more than a decade.
Fini gave few details but it appeared the law could apply to some of Berlusconi's trials, depending on when it comes into effect and its retroactivity.
"This is just a masked trick to save the prime minister," said Felice Belisario, of the opposition Italy of Values party. Former anti-graft magistrate Antonio Di Pietro called it "a criminal game."
Donatella Ferranti of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, said legislators should reject any "tailor-made laws" crafted to protect Berlusconi.
Berlusconi has been in a combative mode since Italy's top court last month ruled his immunity from prosecution while in office was unconstitutional. It overturned a law passed by his government which critics said was tailor-made to protect him.
While Italians want a reform of their inefficient judicial system, the opposition says Berlusconi's real aim is to regain his own immunity and be shielded from upcoming trials.
MAFIA COLLUSION
News that there was support for the new law came a day after the centre-right government had another brush with the courts.
Magistrates in Naples issued an arrest warrant late on Monday for Nicola Cosentino, parliamentarian and undersecretary to Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti.
As Cosentino is a member of parliament, magistrate Raffaele Picirillo sent the warrant to the speaker of the lower house, which must decide whether to lift his immunity from arrest.
Cosentino, the leader of Berlusconi's party for the Campania region around Naples, was slated to be a candidate for governor in next year's regional elections. He has denied the accusations in a statement issued by the local party.
Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, called the Cosentino arrest warrant "an attack by magistrates."
A native of the Naples area, Cosentino is accused of links with the infamous Casalese clan of the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Sicilian Mafia, the sources said.
The 50-year-old legislator is accused of dealings with organised crime relating to illegal garbage disposal in the Naples area, which was hit by a garbage crisis last year that left tons of refuse on the streets, newspapers said.
After last month's court ruling, corruption trials against the 73-year-old prime minister that had been suspended will now either resume where they left off or start again.
One, which involved the acquisition of TV rights by Mediaset , his television empire, had been due to resume on November 16 but Berlusconi's lawyers have informed the court that he will not be able to attend because of a world food summit in Rome.
(Editing Louise Ireland)

Reuters