REPORTING FROM ROME -- A Milan court ruled Saturday that the statute of limitations had expired in a long-running, controversial trial in which Silvio Berlusconi was accused of bribing a lawyer to withhold testimony damaging to the former Italian prime minister.
The court’s decision is likely to satisfy no one, including Berlusconi, who has always maintained his innocence and said that left-leaning judges in Milan had a history of persecuting him.
Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison sentence for Berlusconi, who they alleged paid British attorney David Mills $600,000 in 1999 for lying in tax-evasion and fraud trials regarding Berlusconi’s businesses.
Mills had worked for Berlusconi in setting up offshore companies for the media mogul-turned-politician's holding company, Fininvest, prosecutors said, and therefore was privy to information that he did not divulge in court. Mills was convicted of accepting the bribe in a separate portion of the trial, but did not go to prison because the statute of limitations had run out in that proceeding as well.
In final arguments Saturday, Berlusconi’s lawyer Pietro Longo asked for a full acquittal, saying no crime had been committed. Leaving the Milan courthouse after the judges' ruling, Longo said he would appeal because even if the statute of limitations had expired, the court could still have issued an exoneration.
The prosecution has said that they too will appeal the ruling.
Berlusconi was not present in court.
He and Mills were indicted in October 2006; the trial began in March 2007. It was suspended and resumed several times, including one stoppage when Berlusconi's coalition in parliament passed a law granting immunity to the country's top leaders.
The proceedings against Berlusconi resumed when Italy’s top court knocked down the immunity law. In December 2011, Mills testified by video from London. He insisted he had never been paid a bribe by Berlusconi, and that the $600,000 had instead come from fees from an Italian shipbuilder. The shipbuilder, Diego Attanasio, has denied giving the money to Mills.
During the trial, prosecutors produced a 2004 letter in which Mills told his accountant that he had received the money because in court he had “turned some very tricky corners, to put it mildly,” and “kept Mr. B out of a great deal of trouble."
Mills disavowed that statement in his December video testimony, saying that he was “deeply ashamed” for having claimed that Berlusconi had given him the money and that it was “pure imagination. It’s fiction. It’s a novel.”
In a statement Friday, Berlusconi said that the accusations were “a radical and profound manipulation constructed artfully by prosecutors.”
The flamboyant former premier said that “more than 900” prosecutors had been involved in investigations against him, that he had been the object of 588 police searches, that there had been 2,600 court sessions dedicated to him and that more than half a billion dollars had been spent on lawyers and consultants.
“It’s really an amazing record, not worldwide but universal, a record in the whole solar system,” he said.
-- Sarah Delaney
Photo: Then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy waves from his car as he leaves a tribunal in Milan on Sept. 19, 2011. A Milan court ruled Saturday that the statute of limitations had run out in a corruption case against Berlusconi, who stepped down as premier in November. Credit: Luca Bruno / Associated Press