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Berlusconi Loses His Shield

An Italian court finally says basta! to the prime minister’s antics and voids his immunity. Barbie Latza Nadeau sifts through the coming wave of charges that could swamp him.

10.07.09 4:00 PM ET

For months now, Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has faced a barrage of questions about his sex life and his moral fiber. Did he condone the orgies at his Sardinian villa? Is he a sex addict, as his wife says? What was his relationship with an 18-year-old Neapolitan underwear model? Did he know a business associate was paying prostitutes in advance to have sex with the prime minister? Did he really tell an escort to masturbate to boost her libido?

Berlusconi has so far been able to laugh off each question with the nonchalance Italians have grown to admire in their 73-year-old leader. “Italians love me the way I am,” he said recently. “They know I’m no saint.”

In all, the criminal cases pending against Berlusconi could land the billionaire head of state in prison for 21 years and cost him millions in restitution.

But now Berlusconi will have to face accusations that do count. Italy’s constitutional court ruled today that the so-called Lodo Alfano Law he instituted shortly after his election in 2008 violates the Italian constitution. The law, named for the young loyalist in Berlusconi’s party who sponsored it, shielded from prosecution Italy’s top four officials: the president, the prime minister, and the speakers of both houses of parliament. Only Berlusconi ever utilized the protection. But now, 15 judges have agreed that all Italians, Berlusconi included, are effectively equal before the law.

Now, without this judicial immunity, it is unclear whether Berlusconi will be able to complete his electoral mandate, which ends with the next scheduled elections in 2013. His approval rating is still relatively strong, although it has fallen from 64 percent to 47 percent since the latest sex scandals broke six months ago. Il Giornale (owned by his brother) headlined today’s paper with the hopeful assertion that seven out of 10 Italians support him.

Berlusconi also has a strong majority in both houses of parliament, which gives him the option of passing a new immunity law, at least to buy time. It is almost assured that his opponents will continue to kick him while he’s down, keeping the sex scandals alive as Berlusconi’s core team turns its focus to the pending criminal trials from which the prime minister is no longer protected.

Under the Alfano Law, Berlusconi ducked charges in several criminal cases that could resume immediately. David Mills, Berlusconi’s British lawyer, was convicted in a Milanese court last year and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for accepting a bribe of more than half a million euros from Berlusconi in 1997 in exchange for false testimony regarding foreign assets in a corruption case. Other cases pending against the prime minister involve tax evasion, bribery, corruption, and false accounting from investigations stemming back to the late 1990s.

The most potentially dangerous legal issues for Berlusconi are charges of false accounting and tax fraud when his Mediaset company won television rights in the 1990s. Another case accuses Berlusconi of offering opposition senators cash for votes. In all, the criminal cases pending against him could land the billionaire head of state in prison for 21 years and cost him millions in restitution. Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing and calls the charges “science fiction.”

Today’s court ruling comes on the heels of another serious blow to the prime minister. Over the weekend, a civil court in Milan ruled that Berlusconi was “co-responsible” for corruption and bribery in a hostile takeover of the Mondadori publishing house in the late 1990s. While that case does not involve criminal charges at this juncture, Berlusconi’s Fininvest company was ordered to pay €750 million in damages.

Now, Berlusconi’s options are clear. He can carry on and pretend that nothing serious has occurred, though there is little chance he can avoid the courtroom. And with the country facing pressing economic and military concerns, including the issue of Italian troops in Afghanistan, there will be little tolerance for a prime minister dividing his time between a tribunal and the capitol building.

He could also step down as prime minister and call a snap election. With no real opposition leader in place, he might easily win again, making this a calculated risk that would give him a new mandate to fight both his political and legal problems. The opposition will hold their own elections later this month to elect a leader, and there is little chance they could gather enough steam to defeat him anytime soon.

The center-right might also start its own move toward life after Berlusconi. The obvious replacement is Gianfranco Fini, who, despite his stint as a blackshirt, has rehabilitated his reputation and is easily Italy’s finest statesman with an eye on the job.

Last weekend, thousands demonstrated in Rome against Berlusconi’s threats toward media he doesn’t own and control. He has filed lawsuits against several Italian and international newspapers that printed salacious details of his sex life. Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders said Berlusconi was soon to become the first European leader on the group’s list of “predators of press freedom.”

Now, Berlusconi supporters are said to be organizing street protests against the judicial decision—and no doubt his criminal lawyers are already working behind the scenes to prepare for the barrage of trials likely to resume.

Barbie Latza Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel, and Frommer's.