Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

ITALY: Berlusconi Gets ‘Automatic Justice’, for a Start

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, Feb 19 2011 (IPS) - The trial of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on charges of underage prostitution has just taken a turn that some commentators are calling an appropriate twist of fate: the trial, due to begin on April 6, will be adjudicated by a panel of female judges.

The Prime Minister was officially indicted on Tuesday on charges of engaging in sexual intercourse with a 17-year-old, undocumented girl from Morocco. Berlusconi is also accused of abuse of power.

Judge Cristina Di Censo, from the Milan tribunal, ruled that Berlusconi should be sent to an immediate trial, accepting the prosecutors’ argument that the strength of the evidence against Berlusconi was ‘obvious’.

This evidence does not necessarily mean that there is culpability on the part of the Prime Minister – which will be determined in court – but that the circumstantial evidence is based on a solid foundation.

The trial will be presided over by three female judges; Giulia Tutti, Carmen D’Elia, and Orsolina De Cristofaro. All three have a solid reputation in the judicial community, having conducted delicate trials of national importance in recent years.

The judges were chosen by an automatic selection mechanism.

“The selection criteria for judges are not discretionary,” Lanfranco Tenaglia, former magistrate and member of the Superior Council of the Judiciary, told IPS.

“As soon as the judge for preliminary investigation ruled for an immediate trial, the file was sent to the computer of the penal chancery of the court, which automatically assigned the case to judges in the two sections accountable for public administration,” he explained. “It identified the first panel available, and the first available date for the hearing.”

The first hearing will be held on a Wednesday, a working day for Parliament. “Berlusconi’s lawyers – who are also parliamentarians – will certainly claim that they have official duties to attend to on that day, under a ‘legitimate impediment’ law. If decision about date was taken discretionally, the president of the tribunal would have surely chosen to have the hearing on Saturday or Monday,” Tenaglia said.

“The attribution procedure is totally transparent, and the documents publicly accessible. Any other choice, non-automatic, would have been illegitimate,” he added.

Berlusconi’s political supporters consider the female panel to be a ‘controlled manoeuvre’. His critics see it as a kind of just reckoning.

There are 4,071 female magistrates in Italy, who comprise 45 percent of the profession, and the number is rising. More than 60 percent of winners of the last public national contest for magistrates were women. The leading positions are limited, with just 13 percent women.

In Milan, the number of female magistrates surpasses that of males – women comprise 53 percent of magistrates in that city.

Senator Vincenzo Vita, from the leading opposition party, told IPS that Berlusconi must face a fair trial as any other citizen would, without using his position to avoid or overcome the law.

Under Italian law, the prime minister can continue to hold office during trial, “but in order to save the country from this political and social impasse, and to restore institutional credibility at national and international levels,” Vita explained, he believes that the prime minister should resign and early elections be held. Berlusconi’s mandate currently ends in 2013.

“This is not a duel between court and parliament,” said Tenaglia. “Magistrates are doing what they are required to do by the law. Towards a situation of alleged crime, they have to investigate; it would be grave if the magistrates had decided to stop the examination – they would violate the principle of equality (of all citizens before the law).”

This is an unprecedented case in Italian judiciary history, Tenaglia said. “Of course, a government is endorsed by the parliament, but towards an eventual condemnation, the prime minister should take a step back, resign, and focus on his defence before the law.”

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