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UN human rights expert says Italian Prime Minister should not act above law

UN human rights expert says Italian Prime Minister should not act above law

Criticizing recent moves in Italy relating to court cases against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a United Nations human rights expert today stressed that the head of Government must be equal to all citizens before the law.

Just back from a visit to the country, Dato Param Cumaraswamy, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, called attention to a case involving the Prime Minister pending before the Constitutional Court. "Before the Constitutional Court could decide on the reference Parliament jumped the gun and amended the relevant provision of the Criminal Procedure Code" to provide for transferring the case from Milan to Brescia, he said.

"The speed in which Parliamentary process was invoked to amend the Criminal Procedure Code before even the Constitutional Court could decide on the reference is unprecedented, and the immediate beneficiary of this amendment is seen as the Prime Minister, though it is felt that there is a need for such an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code," Mr. Cumaraswamy said.

The Special Rapporteur also notes that the Prime Minister failed to appear in two trials - one in Palermo and one in Milan - to give testimony as a witness. "When inquired why I was told that there is a provision in the Criminal Procedure Code providing high ranking personalities like the Prime Minister the option to appear and give evidence in court or call upon the court to receive their testimonies at a venue of their choice," he said. "I find such a law, particularly in this day and time, untenable."

"The Prime Minister being the head of the executive arm of the government should not be seen as being above the law and violating the very core value of the rule of law," the expert stressed. "In any event it is not clear whether the Prime Minister expressed a choice and called for the court to hear his testimony at another venue. Such a provision in the law can be open for abuse and delay the due process of law by prominent personalities."

In addition, the Special Rapporteur said that another source of concern is that one of the lead lawyers for the Prime Minister is a member of the House of Deputies and is also the President of the Justice Commission in the same House. "Conflict of interest and ethical issues arising over such representation do not seem to be addressed by Parliament or the competent disciplinary authorities of the legal profession," he said.