ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s lower house of parliament voted Wednesday to cut the length of some criminal trials, approving a measure that is likely to end Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s trial for bribing his lawyer David Mills.
Amid boos and cries from the opposition benches, the lower house voted by 314 to 296 to pass the bill, which cuts the length of trials for defendants who do not have prior convictions.
The measure would cut eight months from the Mills trial, one of a series of cases facing Berlusconi, effectively bringing it to an end in the summer rather than the start of 2012.
Berlusconi denies accusations of paying Mills, a Briton, a $600,000 (369,000 pounds) bribe to give false testimony about his business dealings. A verdict is now unlikely before the statute of limitations ends the trial.
Opponents have protested outside parliament for several days and the debate inside the building has often been heated, with the centre-left opposition using every available parliamentary tactic to delay the result.
“The law on short trials is an amnesty in disguise, thought up to avoid having the prime minister face trial,” said Piero Fassino, a deputy from the centre-left Democratic Party.
Wednesday’s measure forms part of a broader program launched by Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, presented by the government as a reform of Italy’s dysfunctional justice system but viewed by critics as a plan to keep Berlusconi out of jail.
Alfano, a 40-year-old Sicilian whom Berlusconi has identified as a possible political heir, has denied that his reform of Italy’s notoriously snail-paced justice system is aimed at getting the prime minister off the hook.
Berlusconi has been engaged in an increasingly bitter battle with what he calls leftist magistrates whom he accuses of trying to subvert the democratic system in Italy by targeting him with trumped up charges.
In confidential remarks to foreign journalists Tuesday that were leaked to Italian news agencies, the 74 year-old premier said magistrates had declared war on the government and represented a “cancer” on the Italian system.
He rejected all the charges against him and pledged to see out his remaining term in office until 2013. After that, he said he may not seek re-election but could remain as a sort of behind-the-scenes father figure on the centre-right.
His spokesman Paulo Banaiuti was quoted by Italian news agency ANSA as saying the remarks were merely hypothetical and did not reflect any concrete plan.
Berlusconi’s attacks on the magistrates and the bill on trials voted in parliament coincides with the launch of several cases against the prime minister, including the so-called “Rubygate” trial in which he is accused of paying for sex with a teenaged Moroccan dancer.
The trials were previously suspended by a measure passed by his government which allowed him to claim that his official duties meant he did not have enough time to prepare his defence and could therefore claim immunity from trial while in office.
The constitutional court ruled against that measure in January, prompting magistrates to re-open fraud and bribery trials and bring the prostitution case to court.
Following approval in the lower house, the measure will go to the Senate, where Berlusconi’s centre-right government has a majority, for final approval.
(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie)
Writing by Catherine Hornby and James Mackenzie; editing by David Stamp