ROME Silvio Berlusconi, facing charges in three trials over corruption and one over paying for sex with a teenager, calls himself the most persecuted man in history.
No surprise then that one of his closest acolytes has launched what Berlusconi calls an "epoch-making" reform of Italy's dysfunctional justice system but what critics condemn as a simple stay-out-of-jail card for the Italian premier.
Like everything in Italy, the truth is more complex than it looks, and behind it all is politics.
Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, a 40-year-old Sicilian often cast as Berlusconi's political heir, took great pains to deny that his major constitutional reform was aimed at getting his boss off the hook when it was launched last month.
Many remained unconvinced.
"Most people from all political sides think the administration of justice is hopeless and needs serious reform, but when it is coming from the fox who has already been in the hen house ... it just doesn't work," said Professor James Walston of the American University in Rome.
Promoting credible legal reform should be an astute political move in Italy, where interminable court delays are deeply unpopular.
It took more than 30 years to convict three neo-fascists for one of Italy's greatest political crimes, a 1969 Milan bank bombing which set off decades of right- and left-wing terrorism.
An anarchist fall-guy originally charged with the crime was not acquitted for 16 years.
DISINCENTIVE TO INVESTMENT
A simple civil case can take eight or more years to resolve and 200,000 such cases do not get to court every year. There is a backlog of nearly six million civil trials and Italy has been condemned for the delays by the European Court of Justice.
Treasury officials say the system is a major disincentive to foreign investment. There is wide popular support for change.
Because of this, Alfano's reform can on one level be seen as a clever move which has already caused new divisions among the squabbling opposition parties and enables the government to portray itself as a moderniser.
A key provision, which Alfano says will rebalance the legal system in favour of the accused, breaks existing close ties between prosecutors and judges, who often share offices.
The trouble is the timing of the reform looks more than coincidental with Berlusconi's latest legal woes, including a trial starting next Wednesday in which he is accused of paying for sex with "Ruby" an under-age Moroccan dancer, and then trying to cover it up.
And new measures introduced since Alfano's "grand reform" have greatly increased the suspicion that the whole process is really aimed at helping Berlusconi dodge justice and get revenge over the magistrates who have pursued him for decades.
They include increasing the civil legal responsibility of judges for flawed decisions and a provision expected to be approved this week to shorten the statute of limitations.
The latter would kill one of the cases, in which Berlusconi is accused of paying British lawyer David Mills a $600,000 bribe to give false testimony about his business dealings.
The national magistrates association harshly attacked the latest measures, calling them "punitive and intimidatory" and saying they revealed the real purpose of Alfano's reform.
Carlo Nordio, a Venetian magistrate, told Reuters the original constitutional reform proposal could indeed be "epoch-making" by improving the speed of the legal system, but these latest measures would have the opposite effect.
"Instead of making justice more streamlined, they will make it more cumbersome," he said, among other things generating an "avalanche" of new civil cases against judges themselves.
Berlusconi says more than 1,000 magistrates have brought 31 prosecutions against him in 17 years, of which 24 have been shelved or resulted in his acquittal.
He recently accused judges of holding a sword of Damocles over "the only obstacle that prevents the left from taking power ... unfortunately Communism never surrendered in Italy."
SEX PARTIES ACCUSATIONS
Aside from his core supporters, many Italians are sceptical about such statements even though they may be uneasy about the open political affiliations of many magistrates and the illegal leaking of a flood of police wiretaps about starlets allegedly being paid large sums to attend sex parties with Berlusconi.
A significant criticism of Alfano's reform is that there are only two years left until the next scheduled elections, very short for such a major and complex constitutional change.
While officials say there is time, analysts suggest the primary motivation for Alfano's reform is political.
Massimo Franco, commentator for the Corriere della Sera newspaper said it would act as a credible rallying cry for the government and paint the opposition as conservatives.
"The government has chosen the symbolic theme for the rest of the legislature, a justice reform which will generate debate, polarise, emphasise the clash with the opposition," he said.
Professor Franco Pavoncello of Rome's John Cabot university said Berlusconi and his aides wanted to fuel tension between executive and judiciary at the time of his trials. This could help suggest he is the victim of a vendetta by the judges.
"It is a clever political manoeuvre ... creating a cloud of events around the trial," Pavoncello told Reuters."
Walston agreed, calling the reform "a smokescreen".
Berlusconi will be able to claim that if the judges convict him, it is merely revenge for Alfano's reform, said Amedeo La Mattina, a columnist for the La Stampa newspaper.
Whatever the truth, Berlusconi's supporters relish what they see as a final showdown. "This law is the kick-off in the final between Berlusconi and the judges. A perfect playing field," said ministerial under-secretary Andrea Augello.
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