Berlusconi acquitted in corruption case

Close political ally sentenced to nine years in prison

MILAN — A Milan court acquitted Silvio Berlusconi of corruption charges, giving the Italo media tycoon-turned-premier a major victory in his long-lasting war with magistrates whom he has always accused of being left-wingers and politically biased.

Less than 24 hours later, however, Marcello Dell’Utri, one of Berlusconi’s closest political allies and business associates, was found guilty of “external association” with the Mafia and sentenced to nine years in prison. The Sicilian verdict is a serious political setback for the Italian premier, who was forced to cut short his celebration for the result of the Milan case.

In his own trial, Berlusconi was accused of bribing judges in the ’80s, before he entered the political arena, to stop the sale of state-owned food company SME to longtime business rival Carlo De Benedetti.

Chief Judge Francesco Castellano announced Berlusconi’s acquittal on one count; on the other, the panel of three judges ruled that the statute of limitations had passed. Even if the twin rulings mean Berlusconi emerges from the case with a clean criminal record, one implies that Berlusconi was guilty of authorizing aides to corrupt a judge but could not be sentenced just because of time limit.

The case was just the latest in a long series of legal trials involving Berlusconi, who at 68 is Italy’s richest man. He was convicted before, but all the verdicts were overturned on appeal or thrown out because of an amnesty law or statute-of-limitation rules.

The SME case, however, was the most serious case brought against the premier and a guilty verdict would have hobbled his political career.

“People are playing with words in order to defraud public opinion. The statute of limitations is not a declaration of innocence but it presumes guilt,” said opposition politician Antonio di Pietro.

Berlusconi’s lawyer Gaetano Pecorella told reporters the premier would appeal the verdict and seek a full acquittal on both counts of corruption.

As for Berlusconi’s convicted associate, Dell’Utri is a senator and a founder-member of the Italo media tycoon-turned-politico’s Forza Italia party. In the 1970s he helped Berlusconi establish his TV group Fininvest and for many years he was the chairman of its powerful advertising firm Publitalia.

The court in Sicily announced on Saturday the verdict after a seven-year trial. It also condemned Dell’Utri to be banned from office. The senator, whose lawyers have immediately appealed, had been accused of acting as a link between the Sicilian Mafia and Italy’s business and political elite.

Prosecutors accused Dell’Utri of having had frequent contacts with the Mafia when he worked for the Berlusconi family’s holding company Fininvest from 1974-94. According to prosecutors, Dell’Utri’s “good connections” with the Mafia also helped Berlusconi’s party to establish itself in Sicily.

Berlusconi had been called to witness but declined to appear in the court and give evidence.

The premier was silent on Dell’Utri case on Saturday. However, he named the Sicilian senatori to Forza Italia’s executive board only last week and reportedly told party members, “I wouldn’t put one hand in the fire for him, I’d put both.”

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