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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Berlusconi Immunity Ignites Protests

ROME -- A decision to grant legal immunity to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has spared him potential embarrassment during Italy's coming EU presidency but provoked outrage on Thursday in Italy and beyond.

Italian commentators called the new bill, which the lower house of parliament approved late Wednesday after a furious debate, an abuse of power, and critics drew parallels with George Orwell's parable against totalitarianism, "Animal Farm."

"From today, Berlusconi can no longer be tried ... as a citizen, therefore, he is no longer equal to everyone else," left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica wrote in a front-page editorial. "The law is no longer equal for all."

Appearing in court during his on-going corruption trial earlier this week, Berlusconi himself said he was "more equal" than other citizens "given that 50 percent of Italians have given me the responsibility to govern."

The bill, already passed by the Senate upper house, has been rushed through parliament in record time and is set to be signed into law by Italy's president in the coming days, before Italy takes over the rotating European Union presidency on July 1.

In Germany, centrist newspaper Berliner Zeitung condemned the way the vote had been rammed through and said it was clearly designed to save Berlusconi from possible conviction.

"Berlusconi has used his deputies as gullible voters in order to save his neck," the paper wrote in a commentary alongside a cartoon showing a smiling Berlusconi dressed as a jailer parading before a blindfolded Justice behind bars.

The bill -- which was actually first proposed by the left and brings Italy into line with many other European countries -- gives legal immunity to those holding the five highest offices of state and suspends any court cases under way.

Berlusconi is the one of the five on trial and will be immune at least until his current term ends in 2006 and longer if he is re-elected.

He is charged with bribing judges to sway a decision in a contested corporate takeover battle in the mid-1980s, nearly a decade before he entered politics. He denies the charges and has accused judges of a politically motivated witch-hunt.

A verdict had been expected in the next few weeks, during Italy's six-month EU presidency, which could have created deep embarrassment if Berlusconi were to have been found guilty.

While he is now spared that threat, his co-defendants in the same case are not protected.

Prosecutors have called for sentences of more than 11 years for other defendants.

Il Giornale, a newspaper run by Berlusconi's brother, hailed the immunity bill as a good move that will put a stop to the "judicial witch-hunt" and said the government could now oversee its EU presidency with a greater degree of serenity.

But Italians in the street were angry and despairing at the bill, which film director Nanni Moretti, an opposition icon, called the worst the Berlusconi government had so far created.

"What do I think?" asked construction worker Mario Artone. "I think it's a huge negative and to the detriment of everybody. Democracy just doesn't exist here anymore."