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Berlusconi bribery case thrown out over statute of limitations

ROME - A court in Milan threw out the bribery case against former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi yesterday, saying that the statute of limitations had expired and continuing his long run of seeming invulnerability to conviction.

Berlusconi, who had denied wrongdoing, had been accused of bribing a British tax lawyer to withhold testimony to protect him. In the trial, which began in March 2007, Berlusconi’s lawyers maintained his innocence even while pressing the statute-of-limitations argument.

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Yesterday, a member of Berlusconi’s legal team, Piersilvio Cipollotti, called the decision a “most positive solution, given the circumstances.’’ Berlusconi and his lawyers have maintained that the court was pressing to convict and jail him at all costs, calling multiple hearings even though they knew the statute of limitations could come into play.

“Had those calculations been carried out earlier, the Italian justice system would have saved hundreds of thousands of euros,’’ Cipollotti said. “We almost feared that they would have condemned him after all the new hearings, once a week for months.’’

Berlusconi was in office for most of the time that the case slogged through the court, slowed by numerous legal challenges. Critics accused Berlusconi of having tried to use Parliament, when he had a solid majority as prime minister, to change the law to defer judgment or even avoid it.

The case involved a British lawyer, David Mills, who was found guilty of receiving money and was convicted in a separate trial in 2009, though that case, too, was thrown out in 2010 because the statute of limitations had run out. At a hearing in December, Mills said that his story that Berlusconi had paid him $600,000 was a fabrication because he wanted to avoid paying taxes on a fee from another client.

Prosecutors had asserted that Mills took the money in exchange for providing false testimony in trials in 1997 and 1998 relating to offshore companies that Mills had helped set up for Fininvest, Berlusconi’s holding company.

Berlusconi is also on trial in three other cases, facing various charges, including paying for sex with an underage woman, and he was recently placed under investigation on charges of fraud at a subsidiary of his broadcasting empire.

The verdict will be closely scrutinized in Italy, where Berlusconi has dominated political life for nearly 20 years and continues to play a prominent role behind the scenes in supporting the government of Prime Minister Mario Monti, who supplanted him last November.

On Friday, Berlusconi said in a statement issued through his spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, that the trial in Milan was “only one of many trials that have been invented against me.’’

He said there had been “more than 100 legal proceedings, involving more than 900 prosecutors who have investigated me and my group, 588 visits from the judicial and the financial police, 2,600 hearings in 14 years and more than 400 million euros in legal fees.’’

“Some remarkable records that would beat records at the global and even universal level, if not at that of the entire solar system,’’ he said.

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