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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2006, 10:43 GMT
Berlusconi and Mills trial opens
Silvio Berlusconi
Mr Berlusconi could face between four and 12 years in jail
The trial of the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for fraud and money laundering has been adjourned shortly after it opened in Milan.

Proceedings against Mr Berlusconi, who is standing trial with 12 others - including his former British lawyer, David Mills - will reopen next Monday.

Prosecutors allege the defendants were involved in establishing a complex system to enable tax evasion.

The men, who face up to 12 years in jail if convicted, deny any wrongdoing.

Prosecutors say offshore companies set up in the early 1990s were used to buy American film rights which were sold at hugely inflated prices to Mr Berlusconi's television company, Mediaset.

It was an intricate system designed, they allege, to ensure the former prime minister avoided paying tax.

Awkward questions

In a related trial to begin in the new year, Mr Mills - the estranged husband of UK culture secretary Tessa Jowell - and Mr Berlusconi will appear alone to face charges of perverting the course of justice.

David Mills
Mr Mills has denied any wrongdoing

It is alleged that Mr Mills was paid $600,000 (316,000) for not revealing details of the offshore companies during two previous trials in 1997 and 1998, in which he gave evidence as an expert witness.

Mr Mills initially admitted receiving money from Mr Berlusconi "in recognition" of the evidence he gave, but later recanted, saying the money was paid to him by an Italian shipping magnate, Diego Attanasio.

The $600,000 payment has caused intense political difficulties for Mr Mills' estranged wife, Tessa Jowell.

It was alleged the money which passed through a series of offshore accounts was later used to pay off a loan that had been raised on their London home for a similar amount.

Earlier this year, the culture secretary was forced to answer awkward questions about what she knew of the money, but she was cleared of breaching any ministerial code of conduct.

White-collar case

Whatever the evidence in either of these two cases, experts say it is unlikely any of the men will ever go to jail, the BBC's Christian Fraser reports.

Legislation passed by Mr Berlusconi's government in 2005 is widely believed to lessen the threat for wealthy defendants in such cases.

Tessa Jowell leaving her north London home on Monday, 6 March
Ms Jowell was cleared of breaching any ministerial code of conduct

The changes to the law cut the statute of limitations - after which a crime is automatically expunged - for corruption, fraud and false accounting.

Mr Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, still harbours ambitions of returning to power for a third time, says the BBC's Rome correspondent Christian Fraser.

His vast business empire includes a private TV network, a publishing conglomerate, insurance companies and department stores.

Mediaset owns three national television channels and an advertising group in Italy, and controls Spain's television channel, Telecinco.

Last year it recorded profits of $770m (406m).

'Communist magistrates'

In June, a court in Madrid began re-examining a tax fraud case against Mr Berlusconi just two weeks after he lost power and his right to immunity under Spanish law.

He is accused in Spain of covering up tax fraud of almost $140m (74m) during the early 1990s in connection with his holding in Telecinco.

The court cases are unlikely to damage Mr Berlusconi's political standing, our correspondent says, and he remains popular with the centre right.

Mr Berlusconi has consistently claimed the charges are the work of "communist magistrates", who he accuses of trying to ruin his political career, and the Italian press has tended to display little interest in the proceedings.

Since he came to power he has been in court seven times on corruption allegations. He has been found guilty on four occasions - but has always been cleared on appeal.

Footage of Silvio Berlusconi during his time in office

Lawyer Mills in corruption trial
30 Oct 06 |  UK Politics
Q&A: Berlusconi fraud charges
07 Jul 06 |  Europe
Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
02 May 06 |  Europe
Country profile: Italy
19 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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