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Berlusconi faces immunity challenge

October 6th, 2009
12:54 PM ET

Italy’s top court has started reviewing a law which shields Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from prosecution.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/10/06/silvio.berlusconi.art.jpg caption="Silvio Berlusconi introduced the law giving him immunity a year ago."]

Berlusconi introduced the law giving him immunity a year ago, shortly after he was returned for a third term in office.

In doing so he joined the leaders of many other democratic countries in being protected from legal challenge while in office.

In France, for example, the president is immune from all prosecution, a provision claimed by President Chirac to avoid prosecution over allegations of corruption from his time as Mayor of Paris.

In America, though, the president is less protected. Bill Clinton faced a prolonged court case over accusations of sexual misconduct while Governor of Arkansas, as well as an impeachment attempt in Congress.

What's your view? Can national political leaders ever be above the law? Or is the threat of legal action too often just another political tool?

Send us your thoughts and we’ll include the best of them on Connect the World tonight.

Filed under:  General
soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. Jesse

    All leaders must be held accountable for their actions and decisions. I dont even see how this is a question. All one has to do is remember an example like Hitler and the answer should be obvious. In fact, due to the nature of these positions and the ability to negatively affect so many people, they should be held to a higher standard if anything.

    October 6, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  2. Bubba

    I think that NO political leader can ever be above the law. What's more: nobody can ever be above the law.

    October 6, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  3. Ralph

    In Italy "la legge è uguale per tutti" or the law is equal for everybody. That's what's written in the constitution. So why not Berlusconi? What is so special about him, apart from being the worst PM who ever occupied the post at Palazzo Chigi? Berlusconi is implicated in a large number of trials which go from illegal export of capital, bribery and fraud. The only way to save himself until he turns 75 is to create laws to keep him out of jail. Once he turns 75 he can be prosecuted but will not face jail. The man is a crook, proven by several courts, but he escaped to serve his sentence by buying himself into politics. With his immunity law he could get virtually get away with murder! And that is all without considering the fact that he is blackmailing and blackmailed!

    October 6, 2009 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  4. s.k.

    leaders should be prosecuted if national security is at risk

    October 6, 2009 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  5. Georgiy Kolomichenko

    Nobody should be above the law, including political leaders.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  6. Meg

    An interesting thought, keeping political leaders above the far reaches of the law. This implies that political leaders, unlike you or I, are somehow immune from such things as corruption, immorality, and, well, just being plain human. I'm sorry, when did the Pharaohs return? I must have missed that memo. Until political leaders can prove to us that they can be above the law, but still respect and follow it (and in Berlusconi's case, this seems highly questionable), is the moment I'll say okay to the proposed immunity. Until that day, they will just have to remain as responsible as John Q. Taxpayer for their actions while in office.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  7. Eugene Flaherty

    should they be immune?
    I believe strongly that no man or women shall stand above the law.
    Even if they are president or mayor or what ever their position is.
    I mean, are they not the ones that should stand up for the law more than any one else. If immunity is practiced among leaders, then they will practice it. And who will be the ones suffering?

    October 6, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  8. Will

    No one is above the law. Political Leaders, if they are immune, would be the end of any True democratic country. The Law is to Protect Everyone. If a Political Leader breaks the law, then they must answer to the Law, and by extention the People.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  9. Enrique Alonso

    Inmunity ONLY for political decision.
    No inmunity for ALL OTHER CRIMES.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  10. Confidentcar

    I think that no one should be considered above the law by the principle that every human is born equal and with equal rights. The person choose by the people to lead a country should set an example to follow. If he goes with prostitue (maybe underage) corrupts judges, do not pay taxes, the rest of the country will think that those are normal things to do. Example, if young girls sees an ex-prostite getting access to pubblic affairs they will start to think that if they sell their body to the right person they will be able to became ministers one day. This is sad and as a father i think that berlusconi set a terrible example to all the young generations. A country like Italy deserve a better rapresentative in front of europe and the rest of the world.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  11. Leon de Beer

    While they are in office I believe they should be immune, however, once they leave office, if they broke the law, they should be prosecuted.

    If your country's leader gets prosecuted whilst in office, there is a void in leadership and it can affect decision-making.

    But that being said, no one is above the law.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Reply
  12. Barry Wilson

    Justice is highly partisan. Rich and powerful people have great advantage in escaping or delaying consequences particularly if their misdeeds involve misbehavior or crimes taken in the name of patriotism or maintaining advantage for corporate interests.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  13. Derrick Chapman

    When the President does it, it's not illegal. That was Nixon's rationalization. (See, you don't have to mention Hitler to bring the thread to a halt!) Nixon and all his lawyer-friends actually believed that they were above the law. As Fawn Hall testified re: Oliver North, sometimes you have go beyond the the letter of the law, in order to protect documents you're smuggling out in your panties. Or as Clinton said, "it depends on what your definition of is is."

    Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  14. Alex

    Leaders have responsibillity, great responsibillity. They have chosen this great responsibillity in freedom. The question should not be if a great leader should stand above the law. The question is if they can be called Great Leaders when they do not wish to be accountable for their actions. Statesman or woman can be called 'Powerfull Leaders but they can only be called 'Great Leaders' when they are accountable for their actions and always available to the court of the country they in some way ruled.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  15. Brent

    Why is the question being asked? Of course they should NOT be immune from prosecution! The very notion is ridiculous. If you want the responsibility of leadership you also must bear the responsibilities of your actions. Actions have consequences and a leader above everyone else must be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. If Cheney of Rumsfeld, as examples, gave the go ahead to torture prisoners and their actions were illegal they are responsible for the consequences. For someone of authority to order someone else to do their dirty work and then be allowed to walk away without being prosecuted is nothing short or immoral and wrong! By the way, this goes for any leader of any company or bank that got us into the financial mess we’re in. Justice MUST be handed down otherwise all of us will loose faith in the system and our civil society will dissolve into anarchy.

    October 6, 2009 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  16. Michael Cosgrove

    Automatic immunity from prosecution does not exist in Anglo-Saxon countries, and so much the better in my opinion. Moreover, those countries' populations would never accept it.

    As an Englishman living in France I have assiduously studied the negative effects of immunity on Chirac and now Sarkozy (see the Clearstream scandal.) That said, both France and Italy share Latin roots and their philosophy of leadership means that both politicians and the public accept immunity, even if grudgingly.

    I am against immunity, but I think we have to accfept that what is morally acceptable in Latin countries is not necessarily accepted in Anglo-Saxon countries and vice versa.

    Vive la difference?

    October 6, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  17. joe

    it depends.. if a office holder is going to be arrested for making a judgment call on a crises or policy i don't think it would be right..

    but if they pull a 'Nixon' or something like that then its a horse of a different

    October 6, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  18. EMA


    October 6, 2009 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  19. Keira

    No world leader is above the law, period! If they break the law, they become John Q. Public, not a head of state. What Bill Clinton did was NOT illegal. Questionable judgment, certainly, even idiotic, but not illegal. World leaders are responsible for millions of people but not their own behavior?? Laughable & ludicrous!

    October 6, 2009 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  20. Matteo

    I think the question is not well put. Please read the law and then reformulate the survey. The shield is offered to the top 4 institutional positions and for limited instances. These people shall in any case be prosecuted, with the proceedings taking place at the end of the term.

    October 6, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  21. Jason

    I agree with Leon de Beer, immunity while in office makes sense. A court case could take up a great deal of time and be used as a distraction by political opponents. Obvious exceptions would include major crimes like murder or violations of laws as part of leadership decisions. However, after the term has ended, the prosecution should continue.

    October 6, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  22. iwan

    Not only they should not be immune, but they should be punished in a more sever way as ordinary citizen. The reasons for this seem to be self explaining to me.

    October 6, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  23. Elliott McElroy

    leaders should not have immunity, even from political mistakes. (My personal opinion, Iraq 2 was a mistake. our leaders mislead us)

    everyone should be accountable for their actions.

    As a Director of company, if i lied my shareholders or government regulator, i am reposnable for my actions and the companys. Why should politicians not have the same responsibility when the are effectively directors of a entire country and government?

    October 6, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  24. Vincent Rome

    No one is proposing to hold leaders above the law, merely to prevent some judges, politicians, and individaul citizens from bringing law suits against a presiding high level elected official. The Italian law being reviewed by the high court does not give immunity to the four highest political leaders, it merely tolls the statute of limitations while they are in office; it postpones the day of reckoning. An number of judges in Italy can bring charges against an elected official without even the slighest hint of wrong doing thus undoing the will of the electoriate. Elected public officials should be allowed to do their job without legal harrassment.

    October 6, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  25. Leonardo Sartori

    I'm an italian student, and i'm glad you brought up this issue. I think is pathetic that a prime minister as mine could enjoy immunity. The law is the same for everyone. I think that we italians should have stopped him from standing as candidate. Everyone knows how many trials Berlusconi has had in the past, and it's just unfair that he's excused from them. A person with legal problems doesn't deserve to be the presindent of a country.
    Apparently most italian people don't care. That's because people can't see the government as part of themselves. They think the government is something against you, because they force you to pay taxes and everything, and this leads to not caring about your country, voting presidents like Silvio Berlusconi...shameful...

    October 6, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  26. Phillip

    Please, do not give the premier of Bermuda any other great Ideas!

    October 6, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  27. Celso Cunha

    Every citizen must be under the same law. NO EXCEPTION.

    October 6, 2009 at 5:20 pm | Reply
  28. Aaron

    Fearing the consequences of one's actions goes hand in hand with respect for the law.

    As soon as the concept of immunity is introduced, so too is the slippery slope of to whom it should be given. At some point between Presidents and the town concil there will be a huge incentive to disregard the law as long as you are popular enough to stay in the echelon of public offices which keep you immune.

    When in a position of power that is extremely easy as you have lots of favors to trade. Once people see others getting in on the deal they will want their piece resulting in a snowball effect of corruption. Also, even though politicians are already predominantly liars and hypocrites, this would just exacerbate the difficulties of them calling for reforms or admonishing others when they are guilty as sin, everyone knows it, and but for their power and immunity they would be in jail.

    Such immunities are the road to corruption and the deterioriation of public standards. In other words, they are just plain dumb!

    October 6, 2009 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  29. Antonio

    Nobody must be above the law. That said, unfortunately Berlusconi has a long experience of prosecutions moved against him by politicized judges levaraging everything just to embarrass him and create problems to the elected government. So no wander that he needs to protect himself while in office. When out of office nobody will be interested in prosecuting him with false claims.

    October 6, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  30. Anon

    As long as a public official is office as leader of a country, he should not face prosecution for silly "crimes". It only distracts from governing. Clinton was an example. It wasted taxpayers money and the prosecution probably hurt the country more than the lying about having sex. Berlusconi has been hounded about sex scandals and unethical business practices. Whether or not these are true they should be delt with after he leaves office. This is only the opposition that wants him out of office on taxpayers money.

    October 6, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  31. Lucio Miele

    Nobody should ever be above the law permanently. A temporary immunity to protect a leader from politically motivated legal challenges could make sense, provided that once his/her mandate in office ends, the former leader should face whatever legal challenges were filed against him/her as a private citizen. The key word is "temporary" and not indefinitely renewable. The statute of limitation should not apply to such cases. Otherwise someone could conceivably be guilty of serious crimes (in the case of Mr. Berlusconi one of the cases against him involves bribing a judge and another bribing a British attorney) and never face prosecution as long as they keep getting re-elected until the statute of limitation kicks in. This has happened already with Mr. Berlusconi. Public trust in law and order is based on the predicate that nobody is too powerful to get away with crime.

    October 6, 2009 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  32. ty_m

    We in Botswana learnt with shock in the past few weeks that our president is immune from any prosecution in a legal battle with his political comrade. The president just raised the immunity shield even before the merits of the case could be heard. This can be dangerous more especially in Africa where political leaders are known to have no respect for the rule of law. No one should be above the law.

    October 6, 2009 at 5:48 pm | Reply
  33. Bill

    Unless a leader commits a serious felony while in office, he should not be prosecuted while in office unless he or she chooses to. However, when he leaves office prosecuters should be allowed to prosecute any crimes they deem fit to prosecute that were commited during his/her term. For example: What happened to Clinton did nothing but take his mind off his job and could have easily waited until the end of his term. If he would have raped her, that would have been a serious felony, worthy of prosecution while in office, but lying about a consensual blowjob is not a crime worthy of taking away the concentration the job of a head of state needs to perform his duties.

    October 6, 2009 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  34. Allen

    While there should be protection from malicious prosecution brought entirely to distract politicians from fulfilling their duties, I agree that NO ONE must ever be above the law. (Courts could have the power to postpone apparently frivolous prosecution or civil action until after a leader has left office.) Several members of the last US Administration should certainly be investigated and, if possible, prosecuted.

    October 6, 2009 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  35. EThorne

    As long as partisanship and politics can be removed from the decision to try the person, and as long as you are trying them for crimes that do not deal with their decisions while in office.
    I would like to think no one is above the law, but as noted with Roman Polanski who is finding support in Hollywood, France and Poland, apparently there are some who are above the law.

    October 6, 2009 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  36. Bob Johnson

    Am I right in thinking that, in history at least, a head of state in Rome who is above the law would have the title "Dictator"??

    October 6, 2009 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  37. Jeff

    Immune from actions done in their role as a state leader? Yes. We hire these people to make tough decisions and to take tough actions, and sometimes mistakes are made.

    Immune from personal actions, or actions against the state (As specified in that states governing document)? Absolutely not.

    October 6, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  38. Martyr2

    Leaders should be shielded while in office, but then tried after they are out. The reason is simple, if the leader is hung out there to be prosecuted by anyone and everyone for anything, they will have their opposition party digging up dirt on them, attempts to blackmail can be made, he/she will be forced to defend themselves rather than do their elected job (how much time did Clinton dedicate to defending is position rather than making key decisions over something that was immoral BUT NOT ILLEGAL) and a lifetime of mistakes (which the person may have learned from) would be brought up just to attack the leader politically.

    I do believe they should be held accountable, just not while in office. Unless the crime is a heinous crime (genocide, crimes against humanity) or a serious felony which would most likely cause an impeachment to succeed, wait till after they get out.

    October 6, 2009 at 6:58 pm | Reply
  39. pfiore8

    I can't even believe the question. Should leaders ever be above the law? Holy moly. It's crazy, just having to ask it.

    Let me put it this way: those we elect or appoint to uphold our laws must not only enforce those laws, but they, above others, must be held accountable to those laws.

    The mess we are in is directly completely entirely due to the fact that leaders have NOT been held accountable under the law.

    It is incredible. That you even need to ask.

    October 6, 2009 at 7:00 pm | Reply
  40. Raymond Gelderman

    Whether or not to bar state leaders from legal prosecution is almost a rhetorical question for Americans. Very understandable though that is from a historical and cultural point of view, I think that by answering the question negatively one ignores a few obvious, negative consequences. First of all a state leader might not be able to function properly with constant legal battles undermining his or hers legitimacy. Secondly, political opponents might take advantage of the law to do just that, undermine a political position by prosecution to improve their own. Both situations would be widespread because of their effectiveness and consequently lead to ineffective government. The solution is to give state leaders immunity from prosecution during their elected term, and make them accountable in court to anything unlawful they might have done when it ends. The legislative power should be able to end a term prematurely when it deems that the actions of the state leader can no longer be accounted for. Accountability, governability and democracy all brought together.

    October 6, 2009 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  41. Ivo Zorg

    EThorne, instead of focusing on Roman Polanski's alleged civil crime, you may want to look at George W. Bush's & Co.'s war crimes against innocent civilians in Irak after launching an illegal war there. It is obvious that the Swiss gave Polanski to the US as part of a package deal related to private banking secrecy. That is why I (and many many others) don't support the idea of indicting only selected scapegoats while people who committed crimes against humanity and war crimes remain free from any type of prosecution. Just see how CNN and other Western news agencies focus on Iran's nuclear ambitions while they are putting the Goldstone report under the rug. How can we expect any type of justice when the entire Western word is biased as a result of lobbys and other powermongers' influence. Leave Polanski alone and go after GWB, Carl Rove, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pearl, and all other masterminds of the illegal war against the people of Iraq. THen you will really have accomplished something.

    October 6, 2009 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  42. Alex

    Could be casuality that Berlusconi, with 3 pending judgment decided to introduced this low?!?
    Could be casuality that now Italy is the only country in the world where the Prime Minister has the immunity (all the other case are only for President fo the Repubblic).

    October 6, 2009 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  43. JC

    Italians have forgotten that Presidents and Prime Ministers are a public servers, they are not gods or better that any one else. They must be equal like any other person.

    Actually, they should be role models and avoid behaving like they are the owners of the country or kings. Berlusconi is a narcissist and a right wind corrupt. You just need to understand how he made his fortune.

    October 6, 2009 at 9:32 pm | Reply
  44. Jayan Walter

    President Berlusconi, since when he was elected the first, second and third time, is always changing the laws for his own benefits and to avoid to be put in jail or judged. This time he could really go to jail if this law about no processing the main governmental officiers (president, prime minister and the two presidents of the parlamient). So really the law is NOT EQUAL for all! And this is against the constitution. I really hope that he will be persecuted for all the bad action that he has done againt Italian people!

    October 6, 2009 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  45. Alessandra

    Unfortunately in Italy honesty and ethics, thanks also to this prime minister, his ownership and control over most media and his political game to avoid trials, are not as important as they were and should be. This law was already rejected 4 years ago and now it is submitted to the constitutional court again with some adjustments but same content. As long as most media – TV, newspaper, magazines – will be in one person control he will be able to manipulate people, convince politicians and even press judges. A strong campaign against judges already started, years ago. If this won't be approve most newspapers and TVs will start to complain about poor professionalism and political choices from judges ... and the people will follow .... Poor Italy!

    October 7, 2009 at 6:52 am | Reply
  46. Arome Omatola

    Erring leaders should be stripped of every immunity and tried,because too often they escape from their country of origin soon after they leave office,and then the argument of extradition takes over.

    October 7, 2009 at 8:49 am | Reply
  47. Federico

    "Law" in recent Italian history has been the instrument of left-wing parties to take power, by delegitimating liberal and democratic leaders with partisan judges.
    So: no one should be above justice, but democracy must be protected from the attack of "law", when most judges applying it are factious. What should be done in a country like that? A law protecting the leaders, for just the time they are in office, is not only right but absolutely necessary.

    October 7, 2009 at 9:37 am | Reply
  48. Alessandro Vanno de' Vanni

    The United States' knowledge of Italy is very approximate. In Italy, NO law is really exists for EVERYONE and is respected by EVERYONE. In Italy, the "obligatory" laws are set up and approved in order to favor one or the other "baronies" linked to the power of the moment, such as the Christian Democracy, the Social Party, the Communist Party or Berlusconi, never forgetting the numerous "other powers" existing in Italy and which it is wise NOT to ignore. The United States, who paid a stiff price in human lives, "liberated" Italy but NOT the Italians, victims yesterday as today of the arrogance of the powerful. Italians are too often obliged to endure or to emigrate. The rule of law in Italy, is the facade behind which every abuse and every violence is hidden, but perhaps "everyone is the same position" and as Celso Cunha says : "Every citizen must be under the same law. NO EXCEPTION". My declarations are highly responsible, since I am an Italian citizen who had to flee my own country and ask Switzerland for political asylum, thus placing myself under the protection of the United Nations in Geneva.

    October 7, 2009 at 10:17 am | Reply
  49. Pierluigi Barbarisi

    Niccolo Ghedini ( Berlusconi's lawyer):“The law is equal for everyone, but not always in its application.”
    Gaetano Pecorella ( another Berlusconi's lawyer):“He is no longer ‘first among equals’, but ought to be considered ‘first above equals'".
    These assertions make me perplexed and remember me George Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm — “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”.
    We don't live in the Ancient Régime, when French King was "legibus solutus"!

    October 7, 2009 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  50. top atobajaye

    the subject of the law is paramount .and every govt representative should consider first those who elect them to the ofice.no one should above the law. incoporation of that aspect is nothin but authocratic

    October 7, 2009 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  51. Stephanie

    I have to agree with the Italian media on this one, "the law is equal for everyone:" http://www.newsy.com/videos/berlusconi_stuck_on_the_hook

    October 15, 2009 at 9:35 pm | Reply

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