Berlusconi should go to prison for bribery: prosecutors

Berlusconi should go to prison for bribery: prosecutors

ROME - Agence France-Presse
Berlusconi should go to prison for bribery: prosecutors

AFP photo

Italian ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's legal woes returned to haunt him Wednesday as Milan prosecutors asked he be sentenced to five years in prison for bribing his former tax lawyer.

"It is certain, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty," prosecutor Fabio De Pasquale told a court in a damning attack in which he accused Berlusconi's defence of being entirely "based on false documents." Berlusconi is accused of paying British lawyer David Mills $600,000 (450,000 euros) to provide false testimony in several trials against the tycoon in the 1990s. He denies the charges and accuses prosecutors of plotting against him.

The request that the media magnate serve time in jail is largely symbolic. Even if Berlusconi is convicted, the 75-year-old is unlikely to ever serve time in prison since sentencing guidelines in Italy are lenient for over-70s and the case is due to expire under a statute of limitations this year.

"It would be a major blow to his prestige nationally and internationally," said James Walston, a professor at the American University in Rome.

Mills, a specialist in offshore tax havens, was convicted by a Milan court in 2009 and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail, but an appeals court threw out the corruption case in 2010 because it had run out of time.

The court did however denounce what it described as "a case of very serious corruption", which was taken by legal experts as an admission that it believed Berlusconi was guilty in corrupting Mills.

Mills, estranged husband of former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell, told the Milan court in December that his own claim in a letter that he had received the money from "the B. people" was in fact "pure imagination".

Prosecutors argued Wednesday that Mills was lying when he retracted his initial claim, Italian media said.

The trial against the flamboyant former premier for paying the bribe was previously suspended thanks to a law passed when he was prime minister, and prosecutors' attempts to see him behind bars now may come too late.

The defence has accused the judges sitting in the Milan court of being biased against the former premier and have asked for the case to be moved to another court. An appeals court is set to rule on their request on February 18.

Should they support the defence's request, the trial will be moved to a fresh court and would start again from scratch. Even if the Milan court is found to be competent, the case is set to expire under a statute of limitations later this year.

"In practical terms it means nothing, the statute of limitations is about to kick in. Even if he was convicted, there would be an appeal and the case would be thrown out. He's not going to go to jail," Walston said.

Berlusconi, who remained a member of parliament after stepping down in November, is a defendant in four ongoing trials for bribery, tax fraud, sex with an underage prostitute, abuse of power and violating official secrets.

The ageing playboy has said he will not run for prime minister in the next general election and now regards his role as a "founding father" of his party.

Even if he escapes prison in the bribery case, observers say that a guilty sentence may weaken his rumoured ambitions to run for the presidency in 2013.

"This would just be one of the many reasons that he would be an unsuitable candidate," Walston said.