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The Italian government has approved draft legislation restricting the use of wiretapping in police investigations and imposing tougher penalties on those who eavesdrop illegally.

The government argued that limits were needed to cut costs and defend the privacy of citizens, like Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose private conversations have ended up in the papers. “We are trying for a happy medium between the right to have private lives respected and the responsibility of the state to investigate potential crimes.”, Justice Minister Angelino Alfano explained.

But the proposals have been universally condemned by police officers and prosecutors, who say wiretapping is an essential tool in the fight against corruption. “This law would lead to journalists and magisrates being sent to prison while criminals roamed free” says Massimo Donadi from IDV party of crusading prosecutor Antonio di Pietro, “many crimes will simply slip under the radar and many, like the Parmalat case, will go undetected.”

According to government officials, 120 thousand wiretaps are approved in Italy each year, compared to 20 thousand in France and an average of five thousand across the rest of the EU. But critics in Italy say the actual figure is far lower.