Italy has many virtues, but a speedy legal system is not one of them. So what’s behind a bill, just given the ok by the Italian senate, for a “long trial”?
The Italian judicial system moves at a glacial pace. A penal trial lasts for years on average, and even longer if there is more than one defendant and various alleged crimes.
Italy’s court system has been criticised and fined more than any other country by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and sixty percent of its violations are linked to the length of judicial proceedings. Last December, the Council of Europe called on Italy to reform its justice system and speed up its “snail-paced” trials. It also said that delays in Italian justice violate due process and “endanger respect for the supremacy of the law.”
Why the excessive length? Sometimes an absent judge. Sometimes some important missing documentation. Often witnesses summoned by the court simply refuse to show up. But trials are also extended by the defendant’s lawyers in a bid to prolong the trial so that the crime is prescribed.
The latter points give a clue to why the Governing party would be pursuing what appears to be such a damaging bit of legislation.
The changes will allow the defence to call an unlimited number of witnesses. In an interview with l’Espresso magazine, Magistrate Gian Carlo Caselli explains: “It is as if the accused comes to a football stadium and calls all the spectators to be his witness.” In addition, the judge will have no power to prevent somebody taking the stand unless he can prove it “manifestly not pertinent” or unlawful. In practice this will mean “the judge will not be able to exclude evidence that is manifestly superfluous or irrelevant,” according to the National Association of Magistrates.
The result is a gift to deep pocketed white collar criminals, politicians and mobsters who have become adept stringing out trails until they are timed out. In effect, Rome is saying to them, go ahead and commit crimes, you’ll never have to pay for them.
But above all there is one individual this law will benefit: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He has ongoing trails for corrupting his lawyer David Mills, and for paying for sex with the minor, the dancer Karima el Mahroug — nicknamed “Ruby” and abusing his office by securing her release from police custody.
What makes this look like one more bit of tailor-made legislation (Legge Ad Personam, as the Italians say) is the fact both trials have not yet got to the point of an initial ruling, a key requisite for the law’s applicability. Second, the billionaire media magnate made sure it was pushed through with great haste (to meet his trial deadlines), despite the country and parliament having rather more pressing concerns, such as the abysmal state of the economy.
There is another, possibly even darker side to this new law. It will prevent the use of testimony acquired in other trials. Gone will be the “Falcone law”, named after the anti-mafia prosecutor who was murdered by the Sicilian mob in 1992 – and with it a crucial tool in mounting cases against the still very powerful force of organised crime.