MILAN (AP) — A court ended a corruption trial against Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday, ruling the statute of limitations had run out on the case and essentially handing Italy's former premier another victory in a long string of judicial woes he has faced.
The billionaire media mogul wasn't in the Milan courtroom when the chief judge Francesca Vitale read out the court's verdict after about two hours of deliberation. Defendants in Italy aren't required to attend trials.
Berlusconi had denied any wrongdoing. He was accused of paying a British lawyer, David Mills, $600,000 to lie during two 1990s trials to shield the politician and his Fininvest holding company from charges related to his business dealings.
Berlusconi's lawyers successfully argued that the case should be thrown out because the statute of limitation had run out.
It is "useless to comment," prosecutor Fabio De Pasquale told reporters as he left the courtroom. Prosecutors had demanded conviction and a five-year sentence.
Defense lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said the defense had hoped for a full acquittal, leaving open the possibility of an appeal. In Italy, both sides can appeal court decisions.
"We would have preferred that the judge had ruled that no crime had been committed," Ghedini told Sky TV 24. "This is the first result, and not an unimportant one."
Berlusconi, 75, stepped down as premier in November after failing to come up with convincing reforms to help Italy exit from the sovereign debt crisis. He had no immediate reaction to the decision, but he issued a statement Friday railing against magistrates for the "many trials" against him and saying that he doesn't remember having met Mills.
"Mills was one of many lawyers abroad that occasionally worked for the Fininvest group. I don't recall ever having met him," Berlusconi said in that statement.
He added that Mills had received the $600,000 from an Italian arms dealer for some legal work and had made up the story that the money had been a gift from a Fininvest employee, who had since died, to avoid paying a 50 percent tax on earnings.
By prosecutors' calculations, the statute of limitations on Berlusconi's case should have expired by July. The court didn't agree, but it's reasoning won't be known for 90 days. Even the prosecutors' time frame would not have allowed for the two levels of appeal required to finalize any verdict.
The trial, which started in 2007, was suspended many times due to Berlusconi's obligations as premier and during a period when parliament had granted him immunity, complicating the calculation. In Italy, the clock on the statute of limitations continues to tick even after a trial begins.
Mills was convicted in 2009 on bribery charges, but his conviction was overturned by Italy's highest court after the statute of limitations expired.
Berlusconi's legal woes are not over. He is on trial in Milan on charges that he paid an underage Moroccan teenager to have sex with him, then used his influence to cover it up. Both he and the young woman have denied the charges.
The charge of using his influence to cover up a crime could bring an additional penalty that would bar Berlusconi from again seeking public office, but that would only occur if a guilty verdict is confirmed on the final appeal.
Berlusconi has faced dozens of trials in Milan, mostly for his business dealings. He has either been acquitted or seen the charges expire under the statute of limitations.
"Once again, the statute of limitations has saved Berlusconi from his responsibility," opposition politician Antonio di Pietro said.