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Italian leader acquitted in corruption trial

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Dec. 10, 2004, 3:26PM

Italian leader acquitted in corruption trial
Associated Press

MILAN, Italy -- A court cleared Premier Silvio Berlusconi of corruption charges in his long-running trial today, sparing Italy the embarrassment of having its leader convicted of bribing judges. ADVERTISEMENT

The three-judge panel's verdict also deprived the center-left opposition of fodder in the run-up to 2006 elections, and removed a burden that had been hanging over the billionaire politician's head for nearly five years.

"Better late than never," he said in a statement in reaction to the verdict. "I was right to be serene because my conscience was clear that I'd done nothing wrong."

Next week, Berlusconi heads to Washington for high-profile talks with President Bush, a close ally who counts on Italy keeping its troops in Iraq.

More than 24 hours after the case went to the panel, Judge Francesco Castellano read the verdict to the packed courtroom: acquittal on one count and a ruling that the statute of limitations had run out on the second corruption charge.

The defense said it would appeal the ruling on the second charge, saying it wanted a clear ruling of innocence.

There was no immediate reaction from prosecutors, who had asked the court to convict Berlusconi on both charges and sentence him to eight years in prison. Each charge could have brought a sentence of one to five years.

The 68-year-old conservative leader -- Italy's richest man -- wasn't present for the verdict; the country allows defendants to skip their trials if they wish.

"This closes 10 years of trials," said Niccolo Ghedini, one of Berlusconi's attorneys, referring to previous cases related to the premier's business empire.

Throughout this 4 1/2-year trial, the media baron had maintained his innocence, insisting he was the victim of left-wing prosecutors.

"In any other country it would have taken six months to reach this conclusion," Ghedini said.

Castellano said Berlusconi was innocent of a charge that he had bribed judges in connection with the sale in the 1980s of the SME state food conglomerate. Prosecutors alleged Berlusconi wanted to stop the company from being sold to a rival industrialist, Carlo De Benedetti.

The second charge grew out of accusations Berlusconi had kept a different judge on his payroll in case of criminal charges against his businesses.

Castellano mentioned a 1991 money transfer with which prosecutors alleged Berlusconi had violated corruption laws, but said the statute of limitations had run out.

Some leftist politicians took satisfaction that the court did not find Berlusconi innocent of the second charge, although leftist deputy Giovanni Kessler told the ANSA news agency that it was "a relief" to Italians that the premier was not convicted and sentenced to prison.

A close Berlusconi associate, Cesare Previti, was convicted in 2003 of corruption in connection with that same transfer of $433,000, as was a Rome judge.

In 1985, judges blocked the SME sale and ruled in favor of a group of magnates including Berlusconi. But the sale never came off, and the food group was later sold off in parcels.

"It is a verdict that does justice to Berlusconi," said Deputy Premier Marco Follini, who heads a small party in Berlusconi's coalition. "I hope it will make the climate more serene and less turbulent between justice and politics."

Italy is a Group of Eight country with close ties to Washington, which counts on Italy's participation in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, despite wide public opposition in Italy to the war. Berlusconi has forged a friendship with Bush.

Berlusconi was the first Italian premier at risk of conviction on criminal charges. The SME case dated from a decade before he entered politics.

Berlusconi has faced several criminal cases related to his business empire since he launched a political career a decade ago. In previous trials, he has been acquitted, or his convictions have been reversed on appeal or annulled because the statute of limitations had run out.

The SME trial started in March 2000 but was halted after the passage of a law that made the premier and four other top office holders immune from prosecution. The trial resumed in April after the Constitutional Court ruled the legislation violated the principle that all citizens are equal before the law.

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