ROME - Countless attempts have been made to separate Silvio Berlusconi’s fate from that of the Italian government and economy. Above all, how can one man's personal destiny be disentangled from the properly functioning relationships between the powers of the State.
In the end, it seems, all attempts at such a separation have been in vain.
Last week the nation's high court announced that Berlusconi’s latest judicial appeal would be fast-tracked to avoid the sentence lapsing during the summer break because of the statute of limitations. This provoked outcry and confusion in Parliament, but the political significance of this response was clear to see: it highlighted the fact that the elementary maxims on which democracy is based are fast becoming distorted.
This distortion started years ago, and has spread like a plague, infecting politicians and public opinion alike. It could have serious consequences for the future of our country.
When the appeal date was announced, the PDL – Berlusconi’s political party - requested that Parliament be suspended for three days in protest. There is no technical or legal justification for this move. Furthermore it represents a serious threat to the neutrality with which judges must make decisions about a trial, and establishes an unacceptable link between the destiny of one person and the most important state institution of all: the one which represents popular sovereignty.
Reducing the suspension of Parliament to just one afternoon – a proposal accepted by the the PDL's left-center partner in the current coalition government – doesn’t change this in the slightest. Agreeing to suspend Parliament endangers a fundamental principle upon which the balance of power between institutions is based; the number of hours or days involved doesn’t make a difference, nor does the argument that compromises are needed to save the current government.
The Supreme Court must quite rightly observe the 1969 law which states that trials must not be delayed if they are at risk of the case being shelved by the statute of limitations – not just when Berlusconi is the defendant, but in all cases. However, it is paradoxical and a sign of how weak the presumption of innocence is that public attention has focused on, not the rapid verdict, but on the alternative solution that would allow one of Berlusconi’s charges to lapse without proving whether or not he was guilty. It is also understandable that Berlusconi and his party doubt the impartiality of the Milan court, but similar suspicions about the Supreme Court are absolutely unfounded.
Conscience of a nation
The Supreme Court has demonstrated on many occasions that it is capable of coming to verdicts that are quite significantly different from those of the Milan magistrates. If all of the Italian judiciary were involved in a mythical and improbable plot against the leader of the main center-right party, it would be impossible to understand how Berlusconi, as post-War Italy's longest reigning prime minister, could have accepted one of the highest positions in a State that was missing one of the fundamental principles necessary to be considered a democracy.
Neither the PDL’s infighting between hawks and doves, nor the disputes among the current leadership of the left-center Democratic party, or even the consequences of the precarious multi-party agreement upon which Enrico Letta’s government is based can distort to such an extent the basic rules of our Republic.
Respecting these rules is no hypocritical formality, but an essential requirement to prevent political discord from igniting into civil conflict. Tiny doses of chloroform have been introduced into political life in recent years to dull democratic sensitivities, and this is starting to compromise the nation’s conscience in a very alarming way.
On July 30, Berlusconi’s sentence risks unveiling, in a dramatic final act, the damage that too much complacency, compromise and underestimation have done to Italian society.
For the past 20 years, instead of being reformed to improve its efficiency and remove uncertainties caused by vaguely-written laws, the Italian judiciary has been warped by the saga of Berlusconi’s various trials -- and the consequences of the laws introduced in Parliament solely as they relate to the fate of the man himself.
Now the risk is that the nation's Supreme Court is being entrusted with, not just the sentencing of a political leader, but also the fate of a government that is working hard to lift Italy out of the depths of an economic crisis and avoid an open political showdown.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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