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Court to rule on Berlusconi's immunity law

  • Story Highlights
  • Law introduced by Berlusconi grants immunity to top political office holders
  • Billionaire Berlusconi introduced law last year following return to power
  • Berlusconi could face bribery, influence peddling, tax fraud charges if law overturned
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ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Italy's flamboyant Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will soon learn whether a controversial law granting top officials immunity from prosecution will remain on the books, after the country's top court heard arguments about it Tuesday.

Berlusconi remains a popular leader among Italians with approval ratings over 50 percent.

Berlusconi remains a popular leader among Italians with approval ratings over 50 percent.

The Italian Constitutional Court could open the way for the billionaire prime minister to face charges of bribery, influence peddling and tax fraud if it strikes down the law.

Berlusconi's government introduced the law last year after he came to power. It shields the country's president and prime minister from prosecution, along with the heads of both houses of parliament.

The hearing lasted a little under two hours, with three lawyers arguing Berlusconi's case and one representing the legal authorities of Milan, which asked for the review of the law.

Arguments focused on whether every Italian is equal under the law, with Milan arguing they must be.

One of Berlusconi's attorneys, Niccolo Ghedini, said the prime minister was a special case, Italian media reported.

Alberto Capotosti, the former head of the Constitutional Court, said the judges would have to decide between those two positions.

"It is true that we are all equal in front of the law and in front of the judges. But we must also take into account that there are citizens who carry out special duties, and whose work is important to the nation as a whole," he told CNN.

He said the court could try to split the difference -- ruling that the prime minister cannot be shielded from prosecution by an ordinary law, but only by a constitutional amendment. The law at issue is an ordinary one. It can take years to pass a constitutional amendment.

The 15-judge panel broke up Tuesday night without issuing a verdict. One could be announced later in the week.

There is no suggestion Berlusconi will step down even if the immunity law is tossed out.

"This is far-fetched, a bit excessive," Capotosti said. "There is no direct connection between a negative verdict and resignation."

Despite the many scandals surrounding him, Berlusconi remains popular, consistently scoring approval ratings well over 50 percent.

And even if the court upholds the law, the fight over it may continue -- the prime minister's political opponents are pushing for a national referendum on it.

Berlusconi's private life has been in the spotlight since his wife of 19 years, Veronica Lario, filed for divorce in May.

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The split followed reports that Berlusconi went to the birthday party of an 18-year-old woman, with whom Berlusconi has denied having an inappropriate relationship.

And the Spanish newspaper El Pais has published what it said were photos of racy parties at Berlusconi's villa on the island of Sardinia, including one picture that showed scantily-clad women.

CNN's Hada Messia and Paula Newton in Rome contributed to this report.

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