PdL blocks parliament over Berlusconi trial 'speed'

Tension rises over fragile govt stability

PdL blocks parliament over Berlusconi trial 'speed'

(By Christopher Livesay) Rome, July 10 - Outraged members of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party secured a one-day halt to parliamentary business on Wednesday to discuss its reaction to a high court decision to start hearings in just three weeks in a case where the media mogul is appealing a four-year jail term and a five-year ban from public office. "Long and detailed discussions (are needed)," said PdL Lower House Whip Renato Brunetta. The supreme Cassation Court on Tuesday shocked the ex-premier's defense team by scheduling the trial date on the same day the appeal was filed, to begin on July 30. The PdL had initially asked for three days to mull moves against "judicial persecution" but later scaled back after the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), who shares power with the PdL in the coalition government, rejected the call. The three-time premier is appealing a four-year term for inflating film-rights purchases at his Mediaset media empire, cut to one for an amnesty, as well as a five-year ban from public office. As he is over 70 he would not serve the year in prison if definitively convicted but have to do social work. However the ban would kick in if, as usually happens, parliament ratifies it. There has been some speculation that the PD may not all vote to ban Berlusconi. As well as calling for the halt to parliamentary business, the PdL said it would no longer attend a government summit set to address thorny issues like the repeal of property tax IMU and the avoidance of a 1% hike in VAT. But the PD said the PdL was over-reacting. Its Senate whip, Luigi Zanda, said "it's OK if a caucus needs a few hours to talk things through, but longer than that is not. "Parliament cannot absolutely suspend its work". While not blaming the PD for the Cassation Court's action, the PdL has said this alleged latest instance of judicial persecution against their leader could bring down the fragile coalition with their traditional foes. After the PdL made its demands, Diehard Silvio Berlusconi loyalist and MP Daniela Santanché said that if the PdL's request to suspend government meetings was not respected there would be consequences. "If the answer is a 'no' then the understanding is that there is no coalition government," Santanché said in a radio interview. "Bringing down a government is not a political action, it is a consequence of political action," Santanché said. Many have worried that the fragile stability of the unprecedented left-right coalition was at risk over the legal troubles of Berlusconi, who has threatened to withdraw support over other issues. Members of his party have vowed to resign from government en masse if their leader's ban from office is upheld. His lawyers have called the move "beyond logic," arguing that it does not give them enough time to prepare, while the Cassation insists the case risked timing out under the statute of limitations - something that has happened in a number of Berlusconi's previous legal entanglements.

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