A visit to Italy by a delegation of Swiss parliamentary deputies has been overshadowed by a dispute over a change to Italian law that would restrict legal cooperation between the two countries.This content was published on October 12, 2001 - 08:33
The visit, by four members of the parliamentary commission on foreign affairs, was part of a long-scheduled series of visits to European Union capitals. But the talks in Rome were dominated by the recent decision of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to change Italian law, making it more difficult for evidence gathered in other countries to be presented in Italian courts.
The change, made at the start of this month, has aroused suspicions that Berlusconi is altering the legal system to protect himself. The Italian prime minister is currently under investigation by Italian prosecutors on suspicion of bribery, and some of the evidence against him is being gathered in Switzerland.
The Swiss justice minister, Ruth Metzler, has already protested to the Italian government over the move, and the Swiss investigating magistrate Bernard Bertossa called it a blatant attempt to protect the careers of senior Italian politicians.
During their visit to Rome, the four Swiss parliamentarians also voiced clear concerns, although they fell short of openly criticising Berlusconi.
"We are guests in Italy," said Dick Marti of the Radical Party, "and we did have some opinions which we did not communicate. Nevertheless I tried to share some of my experiences as a former magistrate with my Italian counterparts, and to express my concern."
Bruno Frick of the Christian Democrats, who led the Swiss delegation, said he had pointed out to his Italian hosts how damaging the change in the law could be to legal cooperation between the two countries.
"We explained that Italy"s change in the law was highly problematic," said Frick, because it would make cross border cooperation and judicial assistance much more difficult. Our attempts to work together against terrorism and organised crime will be put in jeopardy."
Although the Swiss visit to Rome is unlikely to change Italian policy, Peter Sidler, Rome correspondent for the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung", believes many Italian parliamentarians are sympathetic to Switzerland's point of view.
"The whole opposition was flatly against Berlusconi's move," Sidler told swissinfo, "and indeed even some members of the government had doubts too, because they think the change in the law was mainly about the personal problems of Mr Berlusconi."
And Sidler pointed out that the move undermines a treaty on cross border judicial assistance signed by Italy and Switzerland in 1998.
"It's all the more strange because Italy really pressed Switzerland for many years to sign this agreement," said Sidler, "and then once it came into force the government almost immediately wanted to change it."
Next month a delegation from the Swiss justice ministry will travel to Rome for talks with Italian government lawyers, in an attempt to put the 1998 agreement back on track.
"I think the Swiss officials will be telling the Italians once again and very clearly how damaging this change in the law is," said Sidler, "and they will be trying very hard to get the Italians back to the spirit of the accord."
by Imogen Foulkes