Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Italy unmoved by Berlusconi bribe case

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

David Mills
David Mills says he is intending to appeal against his conviction

The British corporate lawyer, David Mills, has been found guilty of accepting a bribe in return for giving false evidence in two court cases.

It is claimed Mills received a pay-off amounting to $600,000 (around £350,000) from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

A court in Milan has sentenced Mills to four years and six months. He says he is innocent and will appeal.

The case goes back to two trials involving Mr Berlusconi in 1997 and 1998.

In short, it was claimed Mills was paid to keep quiet about the prime minister's offshore companies, so Mr Berlusconi could avoid paying tax.

Mills was an expert witness in tax affairs and his evidence is believed to have helped clear Mr Berlusconi.

Mills is said to have used the money he received to pay off the mortgage on the London home that he shared with Tessa Jowell, Britain's Olympics minister.

A UK parliamentary inquiry cleared Ms Jowell of any involvement. The couple are now separated.

The prosecution in this latest trial have tried to portray the whole case as being about power and money.

Winning an appeal would go a long way to establishing not only Mills's innocence but also restoring his reputation

Power for Silvio Berlusconi. Money for David Mills.

Will Mills actually go to prison and where does the case leave the Italian prime minister?

Probably not, is the answer to the first question.

Mills has already told the BBC he intends to appeal and says he has solid grounds for doing so.

He's very angry that it has all come to this and thinks he's the victim of political manoeuvrings.

Under Italy's glacial legal system any appeal process could take another one, two, three or more years.

That could then run up against the country's statute of limitations, which cuts in after seven and a half years.

Immunity laws

So, he could win his appeal, but even if he doesn't, the prosecution might simply run out of time to convict him.

Either way he would walk.

For someone like David Mills winning an appeal would be much more favourable, as it would go a long way to establishing not only his innocence but also restoring his reputation.

As for Mr Berlusconi, he has a built-in get-out-jail-free card, at least for now.

His own administration controversially passed an immunity from prosecution law last year for himself and a handful of other senior ministers.

So he can't be touched whilst in office. However, the charges are suspended, they don't go away.

Case veteran

Yet, even if they did come back to haunt him after he left office, Mr Berlusconi has a proven track record of exhausting all appeals procedures under Italian law.

Mr Berlusconi insists he is innocent, and denies paying Mr Mills.

Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi cannot be prosecuted while he is in office

He is no stranger to the Italian legal system, with one estimate claiming he has been involved in 2,500 hearings during his long career.

In some cases he has even been found guilty. The charges in the past have included corruption, false accounting and bribery.

But he's never been to jail as he has always either won on appeal, was acquitted or benefited from those statute of limitation laws.

To give you an indication of Italians' views on their prime minister and his brushes with the law, on the day the Mills verdict came through there was barely a handful of television news camera crews in Milan to cover it.

It was just not deemed that newsworthy.

Voter forgiveness

Imagine the same in other countries, where the leader of the government was implicated in a massive bribery scam. You wouldn't be able to move outside the court for microphones and camera lenses.

But not in Italy.

Here, there is a quiet resignation among ordinary Italians that sailing close to the legal wind has become a trademark of their leader and the odd squall just shows he's human. It adds to his flamboyant appeal.

It seems that as long as he doesn't steer the great ship Italy towards the rocks, then Italians are prepared to forgive Mr Berlusconi.

It certainly doesn't stop them voting for him, as was proved by last year's overwhelming electoral success in the general election.

But there could be a sting in the tale for Mr Berlusconi.

There is a serious movement here to get rid of his new immunity laws.

If those supporting it can persuade the courts that they have enough - legitimate - signatures, they could force a referendum.

That might leave Mr Berlusconi more exposed.

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