ITALIAN prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was dealt a severe blow last night after an immunity law he brought in was deemed unconstitutional.
Mr Berlusconi, 73, introduced the law last year and it allowed him and three other key figures in the Italian establishment to avoid prosecution during their period in office.
It was used earlier this year to remove the billionaire from the corruption trial of company lawyer David Mills, the estranged husband of Olympics minister Tessa Jowell.
Mr Mills was found guilty of accepting 350,000 from Mr Berlusconi in return for giving him favourable evidence during previous trials and sentenced to four and a half years. However, Mr Berlusconi escaped punishment because of the immunity law.
Last night's decision came after a 24-hour deliberation by 15 judges in Italy's Constitutional Court, and may be the beginning of the end for Mr Berlusconi.
Before the verdict, members of the xenophobic Northern League – part of the ruling right-wing coalition – had said they would call for elections if the law was rejected.
It is the second time a court has thrown out immunity legislation brought in by Mr Berlusconi – the first was in 2004 – and again the same reason was given: "The law is equal for all."
Mr Berlusconi's legal team had tried to argue that the law may be equal, but in certain cases and for certain people – such as the prime minister – it should be applied differently.
However, the court, led by judge Francesco Ammirante, decided by nine votes to six that the Alfano Law, named after Italy's justice minister Angelino Alfano, was unconstitutional as "everyone is equal in the law".
It was also illegal as the law had not been properly considered by the Italian Houses of Parliament, and as it was also technically an amendment it should have been put to a referendum.
Opposition MPs said it was "time for Berlusconi to pack his bags and go" and called for immediate elections to be held.
Mr Berlusconi, who was said to have been confident the law would be upheld, was in defiant mood last night,
Dismissing the ruling, the prime minister said: "The court is of the left. I will carry on. These things do not bother me."
The rejection of the law means two trials involving Mr Berlusconi will resume: the corruption case involving Mr Mills, and another which again involves Mr Mills and focuses on financial irregularities in the selling of programme rights in Mr Berlusconi's Mediaset TV empire.
The prime minister is also at the centre of two frozen investigations, one involving a company called Mediatrade and another for allegedly bribing senators, but these have not reached the trial stage.
Mr Mills' appeal against his sentence is due to begin in Milan tomorrow and it is likely Mr Berlusconi will be called by lawyers to testify as a witness.
The positions that were deemed immune under the Alfano Law were president of the Republic of Italy, prime minister and the speaker of both the upper and lower houses of parliament.
Earlier this week there was further bad news for Mr Berlusconi when his Finivest company was ordered to pay 698 million compensation to a business rival after a court ruled that a buyout of shares had been made after a judge was bribed.
In its "motivation for sentence" the court ruled that Mr Berlusconi had been "co-responsible" for the bribe but he was cleared of any wrongdoing in the affair because of the statute of limitations.