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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Berlusconi to be tried alone

Silvio Berlusconi
No verdict in sight for the Italian prime minister
A court in Milan has ordered that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi be tried alone, separating his three-year-old corruption trial from that of co-defendants.

The court took the decision because Mr Berlusconi's official duties often prevent him from attending hearings.

It is not immediately clear how the change will affect the timetable for completion of his trial.

Before the move, a verdict had been expected in the second half of the year, when Italy holds the presidency of the EU.

The trial arises from the sale of a state-held food conglomerate, SME, in the 1980s.

Mr Berlusconi has denied all wrongdoing, contending that he is the victim of persecution by left-wing prosecutors.

The judges ordered a separate trial after his lawyers told the court that, yet again, he would not be able to show up for a hearing because he was busy with governmental duties.

Presiding Judge Luisa Ponti said the court would set a new schedule of hearings for the prime minister on Monday.

'Available next week'

Mr Berlusconi has hardly attended his trial, but last month showed up to make a statement to the court.

He had indicated he wanted to continue his declaration next week.

The decision to order a separate trial was criticised by both prosecutors and defence lawyers.

Mr Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, said the decision was unfair because the prime minister had already made himself available to attend next week.

"It seems bizarre to me that the court couldn't wait seven more days," he said.

Mr Berlusconi, a billionaire business magnate, is accused of bribing judges in Rome to sway a ruling on the sale of SME in the 1980s, a decade before he became a politician.

Last month, he told the court that SME was about to be sold off too cheaply, so he intervened after pleas from then-Premier Bettino Craxi, a close friend.

Mr Craxi died a few years ago in Tunisia, where he was living in self-imposed exile after being convicted in corruption cases.

The trial will continue for the other defendants, including Mr Berlusconi's former defence minister, Cesare Previti, who was convicted in a similar bribery case last week and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

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