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Berlusconi immunity law thrown out

Berlusconi faces charges of corruption.
Berlusconi faces charges of corruption.

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ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Italy's Constitutional Court has thrown out a law giving legal immunity to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The decision is regarded as a major setback to Berlusconi, whose corruption trial in Milan was frozen last June when parliament approved the controversial law.

Italy's top court said the law was an illegitimate, unconstitutional measure that contradicted a basic Italian legal right that all citizens are equal before the law.

The hotly contested legislation awarded Italy's top five officials, including the president and prime minister, legal immunity during their terms in office.

The court said it was not against the principle of immunity from prosecution for top government officials, but that it believes such a measure should be included in the constitution and not just passed as an ordinary law.

Berlusconi has said all along that even if he were found guilty by the Milan court, he would not resign from office.

Critics accused the government of drawing up the bill to prevent a potentially damaging verdict during Italy's presidency of the European Union, which ended in December.

Berlusconi's allies say the prime minister is facing a witch hunt by politically motivated magistrates and that the immunity law was similar to legislation in other EU states.

While the case against Berlusconi was frozen in June, the trial of his co-defendants continued.

It culminated in a verdict in November, with judges rejecting the central accusation that one of the prime minister's companies had bribed judges to win a favorable ruling in a 1980s corporate takeover.

However, they found that one of Berlusconi's former lawyers, his close friend Cesare Previti, had handed over cash to a powerful Rome judge to keep him on friendly terms with the firm.

Previti was sentenced to five years in jail and is appealing against the verdict.

It was unclear when Berlusconi's trial might resume.

The panel of judges that heard the original trial for more than three years have since struck themselves off the case, which means new judges will now have to pick up the reins.

-- CNN's Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci contributed to this report

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