Rome Court finds immunity unconstitutional

Italy’s highest court has lifted the immunity shielding Silvio Berlusconi from prosecution in a ruling that will revive two trials in which the prime minister and media mogul is indicted.

Trials are centered around his Mediaset TV empire and an alleged tax evasion scheme on a large volume of TV rights to U.S. movies.

The Rome-based Constitutional Court ruled Wednesday that the immunity law — one of the first bills Berlusconi pushed through parliament in July 2008, shortly after starting his third term as prime minister — was unconstitutional and violated the principle that all citizens are equal before the law.

The decision cannot be appealed.

The Milan court that requested the immunity legislation be rescinded a year ago can now resume the Mediaset trials it was forced to suspend.

The first case involves charges of a scheme to falsify the acquisition cost of TV rights on volume deals during the 1990s with U.S. studios, including Paramount, via offshore companies in order to pay less in taxes and create a slush fund.

The second case, brought in 2006, accuses Berlusconi of bribing U.K. tax lawyer David Mills to the tune of $600,000 to lie on his behalf in court about the alleged slush fund.

Mills, who was tried separately, was found guilty of perjury in February and sentenced to four years and six months in jail. He claims he is innocent and has appealed. The trial on his appeal is scheduled to start this month in Milan.

Berlusconi downplayed the effects of the court decision on Wednesday, telling reporters outside his Rome residence that he felt “invigorated” by the ruling and called the trials a “farce.”

Mediaset and Berlusconi also suffered another judicial blow over the weekend when a court ordered Berlusconi’s holding company, Fininvest, to pay $1.1 billion in damages to rival Carlo De Benedetti over the hostile takeover of publisher Mondadori. Fininvest will appeal.

Experts say having to spend so much time in court will inevitably put a strain on Berlusconi’s ability to govern and could lead to early elections.

During his 15 years in politics, Berlusconi has faced eight trials and has been either acquitted or had the case against him dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.

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