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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 December, 2004, 01:12 GMT
Berlusconi cleared of corruption
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 10 December 2004
Mr Berlusconi said he knew he had done nothing wrong
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been cleared of corruption after a four-year trial.

Mr Berlusconi had been accused of bribing judges in the 1980s to favour his business interests.

He was acquitted on one count - on the other judges in Milan ruled that the alleged offence happened too long ago for charges to be pressed.

Mr Berlusconi, who was not in court for the verdict, said the decision was "better late than never".

He is the first serving Italian prime minister to have been tried in a criminal court.

I was right to be calm because I knew fully well I had done nothing wrong
Silvio Berlusconi
He accuses judges of conducting a politically-motivated witch-hunt against him.

The accusations had related to the billionaire's business activities before he entered politics, when he made a fortune in property and television.

'Substantially useless'

Mr Berlusconi, 68, was acquitted of a charge that he had bribed judges in connection with the sale in the 1980s of the SME state food conglomerate.

The panel of three judges ruled that the second charge - dating back to 1991 - had lapsed under Italy's statute of limitations, which was halved in this case from its usual 15-year period.

The defence team said it would appeal on the second ruling, saying it wanted a clear verdict of innocence.

An opposition politician and former top anti-corruption magistrate said the lack of a firm acquittal on the second charge meant Mr Berlusconi did not have the moral stature to be prime minister.

"The statute of limitations is not a declaration of innocence but it presumes guilt," said Antonio di Pietro.

One of Mr Berlusconi's lawyers, Niccolo Ghedini, said: "It's a verdict which is largely satisfactory, which brings to an end a 10-year case which has been shown to be substantially useless."

The BBC's David Willey in Rome says that although acquittal through the statute of limitations is not the same as a not guilty verdict, Mr Berlusconi's unbounded political confidence is unlikely to be shaken.

State prosecutors had demanded an eight-year jail term, had Mr Berlusconi been found guilty.

Next week, Mr Berlusconi is due to visit Washington for talks with US President George W Bush, a close ally.

Mr Berlusconi only attended court three times during the four-year legal process, saying his responsibilities as prime minister left him no time.

The trial was suspended last summer after parliament passed a controversial law giving Mr Berlusconi immunity from prosecution.

But the constitutional court later overturned the ruling.

Other trials

In a separate corruption trial last year, Mr Berlusconi's former trusted aide, Cesare Previti, and prominent judge Renato Squillante, received lengthy prison sentences. Both men have launched appeals.

When Mr Berlusconi became prime minister in 2001 he faced four criminal trials, one on charges of bribing judges, the others on charges of false accounting.

But new legislation brought in by his government made most forms of false accounting by private companies into civil rather than criminal offences.

Three guilty verdicts handed down against Mr Berlusconi before he became prime minister were quashed on appeal.

What this judgement will mean for Italian politics

Q&A: Berlusconi trial
10 Dec 04 |  Europe
Berlusconi immunity thrown out
14 Jan 04 |  Europe
Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
13 Jan 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Italy
26 Mar 03 |  Country profiles

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