Fontaine under fire over Berlusconi immunity decision

Author (Person)
Series Title
Series Details Vol.7, No.33, 13.9.01, p7
Publication Date 13/09/2001
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Date: 13/09/01

By John Shelley

PARLIAMENT president Nicole Fontaine acted improperly when she rejected a request for the immunity of Italian premier and former MEP Silvio Berlusconi to be lifted, an investigation has found.

But UK Liberal Andrew Duff, the MEP conducting the probe, says she was placed in a difficult position because the rules that governed her decision are unclear and he insists they must be revised. "At the moment the procedure is open to political influences; that should not be the case," he said.

Duff's findings will add fuel to a fire which was first ignited last March when socialist deputies discovered that Fontaine had returned a request from Spain asking the assembly to rescind Berlusconi's right to immunity as an MEP.

Prosecutors want to charge billionaire Berlusconi over alleged tax fraud at Tele 5, a Spanish television station which he part owns. Fontaine also sent back a request to lift the immunity of another Italian deputy, Marcello Dell'Utri, on related charges.

Sensing they could damage the media magnate in the run-up to the Italian elections - a poll he was ultimately to win - socialist MEPs insisted Fontaine had broken the Parliament's rules and called for his prosecution to go ahead.

However, Fontaine had argued that the applications, which came from Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, were inadmissible because they came directly from the judiciary rather than the government as was normal practice.

But in a diplomatically worded report into the affair drafted at the request of Parliamentary leaders, Duff says Fontaine had been "overly scrupulous" in her interpretation of the rules.

And he argues the decision on whether to accept the application should have been passed to the Parliament's legal affairs committee. "It is the committee that is responsible for determining the admissibility of all authentic applications for the waiver of immunity," he writes.

Duff though stops short of accusing Fontaine of deliberately bending the rules to protect MEPs who are part of her political 'family'.

He says it is not for him to say whether there was actual political fixing in this case. Instead he suggests a radical reform of the rules on how immunity requests are considered, arguing that the president's discretion in the matter could be scrapped and all requests, be they from an "appropriate authority" or not, could be referred directly to grass roots MEPs.

Spain resubmitted its application for Berlusconi and Dell'Utri's immunity to be lifted in August. But as Berlusconi was forced to resign as an MEP following his election as Italian prime minister, it is unclear whether the request for his prosecution is still admissible. Dell'Utri is still an MEP.

Nicole Fontaine refused to comment. Her office said that the president would not discuss the Duff report until it was formally handed to the leaders of the Parliament's political groups later this autumn.

Parliament president Nicole Fontaine acted improperly when she rejected a request for the immunity of Italian premier and former MEP Solvio Berlusconi to be lifted, an investigation has found.

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