Italy's highest court yesterday overturned a law that gave Silvio Berlusconi immunity from three corruption and tax fraud trials linked to his multi-billion pound business empire.
The constitutional tribunal in Rome opened the way for the trials to resume after ruling that individual judges could decide whether to compel the prime minister to face trial on a case-by-case basis.
The judgment was a further blow for Mr Berlusconi (74), whose grip on power has been weakened by sex scandals, bitter divisions in his coalition and a razor-thin parliamentary majority.
The "legitimate impediment" law, introduced amid controversy last year, allowed the premier to refuse to attend court on the basis that he had official duties to attend to. Opponents claimed it let him escape accusations of tax fraud, embezzlement and false accounting.
It effectively froze three trials, one involving accusations that he paid his British former tax adviser, David Mills, a bribe of €448,969 in 1997 to give false testimony in court.
Mr Mills was convicted of taking the bribe and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison but a higher court shelved the case, ruling that it had expired under Italy's statute of limitations.
The constitutional court judges's decision to delegate responsibility over Mr Berlusconi's immunity was criticised by opposition MPs. "Pontius Pilate would have been braver in expressing his opinion," said Osvaldo Napoli, of the Democratic Party.
Before the court gave its ruling, Mr Berlusconi had said it would not affect the stability of his government and described the accusations against him as "absolutely ridiculous". (© Daily Telegraph, London)