Law puts Berlusconi out of reach until 2013

Three cases against the tycoon will be suspended

GENEVA, Switzerland -- The Italian parliament has approved a controversial law that will at least temporarily end the legal troubles of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, giving him legal immunity while in office.

Berlusconi, who controls broadcast giant Mediaset and film producer and distributor Medusa, claims to have spent about 174 million euros ($277 million) on legal fees since he entered politics in 1994. He said he has endured nearly 600 visits from police, and more than 2,500 separate hearings.

So far, all that activity has failed to yield a single conviction against the 71-year-old billionaire.

Three open cases against him -- alleging bribery, influence peddling, graft and corruption -- will be suspended while he is in office. Berlusconi's current term lasts until 2013, and the immunity could be extended if he moves to the more ceremonial role of Italian president as many speculate. That position also carries immunity.

Berlusconi said the law will give him freedom to govern without legal worries.

But because it includes few limits, critics fear the law will be used to sanction illegal activities while a figure is in office, either in relation to his political activities or to private enterprises.