ROME — Italy's lower chamber of parliament approved legislation Wednesday that would cut the length of trials in Italy and effectively end an ongoing bribery case against Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
The lower Chamber of Deputies approved the bill 314-296, amid protests inside and outside the chamber. The measure now passes to the Senate, where Berlusconi's forces have a solid majority.
The bill is the latest piece of legislation Berlusconi's forces have pushed through parliament that critics say are tailor-made to suit his interests, following on the heels of a partial immunity bill for top Italian officials passed last year.
The bill approved Wednesday would cut the length of trials for some defendants who haven't been previously convicted.
The measure will effectively end a trial where Berlusconi is accused of bribing British lawyer David Mills to lie in court in the 1990s to protect the premier's interests. Mills was convicted in 2009 of having taken a $600,000 bribe, but the guilty verdict was overturned when Italy's highest criminal court ruled the statute of limitations had expired.
The reform legislation will now make it virtually impossible for the court to reach a verdict against Berlusconi before the statute of limitations kicks in.
Berlusconi denies wrongdoing in the Mills case and has defended the reform legislation as necessary to unclog Italy's notoriously slow judicial system.
Aside from Berlusconi's own trial, critics say the justice measure puts at risks several important cases, including a case that follows a deadly train explosion in 2009. The opposition has filibustered against the bill and activists protested outside parliament for days, including during Wednesday's session.
The Mills case is one of four active cases against Berlusconi, including a sensational sex trial that began this month in which he is accused of paying for sex with a minor and using his influence to try to cover it up. Berlusconi has denounced the allegations as laughable and lashed out at prosecutors who he says are intent on ousting him from power.
The justice reform legislation was very much the brainchild of Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, at 40 seen as a rising star of Italian politics and designated as Berlusconi's heir of the conservative leadership by the premier himself during a dinner with foreign journalists on Tuesday night.
Berlusconi announced in December that he would probably step aside at the end of the legislature in 2013. On Tuesday he said Alfano could succeed him, strengthening the likelihood that his nearly two decades in power were coming to an end.
During a wide-ranging conversation with foreign journalists, Berlusconi also discussed his close ties with Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
The Italian leader said, because of these ties, he even considered resigning when the international coalition was formed to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Italy eventually took part in the coalition – a decision Berlusconi said was fraught with "personal difficulties" – allowing NATO use of seven bases in Italy and employing its own aircraft.
"I accepted despite the personal difficulties that this decision entailed for me. At one point I even thought it was my duty to resign," Berlusconi said, adding that "everybody asked me not to," so he stayed on.