Silvio Berlusconi launches new judicial reform attempt

Image caption, Putting on a smile for reporters, Mr Berlusconi met Vatican officials on Friday for an annual ceremony

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has launched a new attempt to reform Italy's judicial system, days after being charged with having sex with an under-age prostitute.

The proposals include a curb on the use of wiretaps and the re-instatement of full parliamentary immunity.

Mr Berlusconi says the reforms, given initial cabinet approval on Friday, will make the system fairer and faster.

Critics say the measures are intended to shield him from trials.

The prime minister has been trying to reform Italy's judicial system for years.

"This is a reform based on principles (underlying) civilised life," he is reported as telling cabinet ministers.

Pending approval

The changes, which were outlined to the cabinet by the justice minister, would restrict telephone taps - one of the main investigative methods used by prosecutors in inquiries against Mr Berlusconi.

The reforms would also separate the careers of prosecutors and judges - a key demand of supporters of Mr Berlusconi, who accuse the judiciary of ganging up against him.

Critics say the independence of the judiciary would be undermined as prosecutors would be placed under the authority of the justice ministry.

Image caption, Karima El Mahroug is the girl at the centre of the scandal surrounding Mr Berlusconi

"The reforms that the government has announced it wants to carry out are not in favour of justice and honest citizens but in favour of criminals," said opposition politician Antonio Di Pietro, a former magistrate.

The draft changes still need definitive approval from the government and will then need to be passed with two-thirds majorities in parliament.

Earlier this week, Mr Berlusconi was ordered to stand trial on 6 April on charges of paying for sex with Karima El Mahroug, better known as Ruby, when she was 17.

Although frequenting prostitutes is not a crime in Italy, having sex with one under the age of 18 is an offence punishable by a prison sentence.

Both he and Ms Mahroug deny having had sex.

The charismatic leader has seen his approval ratings fall as the scandal continues, and there has even been criticism from the Catholic Church.

But Mr Berlusconi showed no sign of concern on Friday as he met two senior Vatican officials who have both been critical of his behaviour.

Leaving Italy's embassy to the Holy See after the annual ceremony marking the 1929 treaty that governs relations between Italy and the Vatican, Mr Berlusconi was asked by reporters how the meetings had gone.

"Great, as always," he said, declining any further comment.

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