Berlusconi Says Corruption Trials Like 'Firing Squads'

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday that his trials in Milan are like firing squads and he hasn't decided whether to appear in court to defend himself.

Berlusconi faces charges of corruption and tax fraud in two trials tied to his media business empire. The conservative leader denies wrongdoing and has often lashed out at what he considers left-leaning and biased magistrates.

Speaking to reporters in Rome, Berlusconi said that "if I appeared, I would find myself not in front of courts of justice but of firing squads." Defendants in Italy are not obliged to attend their trials.

The premier's comments came just after a law that could cut short his trials won initial approval in parliament.

The measure would cap the length of Italy's three-stage trials, which are notoriously slow and can take years to wind through all their phases. Critics say the law is the latest measure tailor-made to protect Berlusconi. Backers insist it is a necessary reform of the sluggish justice system.

Depending on the seriousness of the alleged crime, proceedings would be terminated if judges in the initial trial take more than two or three years to reach a verdict. The limit could be as low as six and 1/2 years for the entire three stages allowed under Italy's justice system.

The measure has drawn the ire of the opposition because it would apply retroactively also to ongoing trials and could end proceedings against the premier.

His trials have been going on for years with several interruptions. Lately they were restarted, following a one-year hiatus, when the Constitutional Court overturned a law that gave the premier immunity while in office.

Since then, Berlusconi's lawyers and allies have been scrambling to come up with measures that might shield him from the trials.

The Senate on Friday passed the bill on the so-called "short trial" 163 to 130, sending it to the lower chamber of parliament, where Berlusconi's forces enjoy an equally comfortable majority.