Several charges against Silvio Berlusconi in a high-profile corruption trial were dropped last week under reforms to the statute of limitations law introduced when the former premier was in power. Milan judge Edoardo D’Avossa threw out embezzlement charges against Berlusconi and British corporate lawyer David Mills—the estranged husband of Britain’s Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell—dating from before July 1999. He also rejected charges of fraud and false accounting before 1998 for Berlusconi and charges against Mills of receiving stolen goods up to 1993.
Centre-right opposition chief Berlusconi still faces charges of tax fraud and false accounting relating to 1999 and embezzlement after July 1999. The trial, which began in November, centres on alleged fraud at Berlusconi’s private TV network company Mediaset. A total of 14 defendants are on trial, including Berlusconi, Mills, Mediaset Chairman Fedele Confalonieri, and several top former officials at Berlusconi’s Fininvest family holding company. The defendants face charges ranging from tax fraud, false accounting and embezzlement to money laundering. They all deny wrongdoing. The case stems from Mediaset’s purchase of TV rights for US films up until 1999 through two offshore firms. Prosecutors believe the purchase costs of US films were artificially inflated for tax evasion purposes. The offshore firms were allegedly set up in the early 1990s by Mills for Berlusconi.
In November 2005, the then Berlusconi government passed a law reducing the statute of limitations on a host of crimes including corruption, false accounting, theft and fraud. The controversial law was heatedly opposed by the centre left, which accused Berlusconi of serving his own interests. But the centre right argued the law would speed up the country’s notoriously slow trial system, under which defendants are entitled to two appeals before a sentence can be considered definitive, by forcing magistrates to deal more quickly with cases.Prosecutors in the Mediaset case have long warned that some of the charges against Berlusconi would be affected and that by the time the case came to trial, the alleged offences would have happened too long ago for charges to be pressed. Berlusconi and Mills are also soon to stand trial in a separate case, on charges of perverting the course of justice. That trial opens in Milan on March 13 and the defendants face sentences of three to eight years if convicted.