(AFP) – Jul 6, 2008
ROME (AFP) — Italian judges, fighting back against attacks by conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, are threatening to strike over proposed deep cuts to their budget.
"We're heading towards the destruction of the justice system," said Luca Palamara, chairman of Italy's National Association of Magistrates, after a near unanimous vote late Saturday.
The group proclaimed a "state of agitation" -- a formal warning that can precede a strike -- published on their website.
The "drastic" measures proposed in the 2009 budget could slash 40 percent of the justice system's allocations and cause an "unprecedented deterioration in magistrates' remuneration (leading to) a substantial paralysis of the institution," the judges said.
Berlusconi, 71, elected to a third stint as prime minister in April, has repeatedly accused "red" magistrates, notably in his native Milan, of conducting a witch-hunt against him.
The self-made billionaire, who has been targetted in several trials since the mid-1990s connected to his media empire, has faced charges including corruption, tax fraud, false accounting and illegally financing political parties, but he has never been definitively convicted.
He has escaped many of these with the help of laws he himself devised during his 2001-2006 premiership, critics allege.
Arriving in Tokyo on Sunday to attend the Group of Eight summit in Japan, Berlusconi dismissed what he called a "small faction ... who continue to try to subvert the results of the elections."
Berlusconi last month proposed an amendment that would suspend tens of thousands of trials for a year, a move the judges said would cause "very serious dysfunction in penal procedures."
It has been approved by the Senate and is expected to pass easily in the lower house Chamber of Deputies, where Berlusconi enjoys a comfortable majority.
The measure was presented as a way of accelerating justice in high-priority cases such as mafia trials, but critics were quick to point out that Berlusconi himself would benefit from the proposal as it would put off a case pending against him.
Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said the prime minister was "under constant attacks by judges."
Ghedini said the prime minister had been summoned to appear eight times this month in various cases including a trial on charges of giving 600,000 dollars (380,000 euros) to his British lawyer David Mills in exchange for false testimony in two cases dating back to the 1990s.
The judges' association also opposes other legislative manoeuvres by Berlusconi widely seen as self-serving, including a bill that would grant immunity from prosecution to Italy's four top leaders, including the prime minister.
They include a proposal to slap strict curbs on the use of wiretaps in judicial investigations and stiffer penalties for the publication of their transcripts.
Berlusconi, himself a target of wiretaps that have implicated him in a series of corruption scandals, won his government's approval of a draft law that restricts the use of electronic spying to cases involving crimes punishable by more than 10 years. The previous threshold was five years.
The 10-year rule will have several exceptions, notably in cases of corruption, human trafficking and child pornography.
The legal moves will be at the centre of an anti-Berlusconi demonstration in Rome on Tuesday called by prominent Italian philosopher and magazine editor Paolo Flores D'Arcais.
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