updated 7/8/2008 4:44:09 PM ET 2008-07-08T20:44:09

Thousands of protesters gathered Tuesday in a historic Rome square to denounce the policies of Premier Silvio Berlusconi in the first major opposition demonstration since the conservative leader won April elections.

The protest in downtown Piazza Navona was called amid accusations by the center-left opposition that Berlusconi is using public office to pass measures that would help him in his judicial battles.

The government is pushing through legislation that would grant immunity from prosecution to the country's top four officials, including Berlusconi, who is a defendant at a corruption trial in Milan. The premier has always maintained his innocence and depicted himself as the victim of left-leaning magistrates.

On Tuesday, center-left supporters filled the baroque square waving party flags and cheering speeches by opposition leaders including Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-corruption prosecutor who turned to politics.

"How can it be that we have to deal with (Berlusconi's) problems instead of the country's problems?" Di Pietro said from a stage.

The proposed law would grant immunity from prosecution to the president, the premier and the speakers of both parliamentary houses during their mandates.

The government insists it is needed to allow the top officials to carry out their jobs without worries. Italy's parliament, which is controlled by Berlusconi's forces, is expected to pass the measure.

Separately, parliament is examining another proposed bill, dubbed by critics the "premier-saving measure," which would suspend certain trials for a year, including Berlusconi's.

The opposition, further enraged by the proposal, says it is aimed at protecting the premier from the embarrassment of a possible conviction as the Milan trial draws to a close. Proponents say it would relieve courts from a backlog of cases and allow them to focus on violent offenses.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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