Berlusconi skips hearing in Milan corruption case

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MILAN (AP) — Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s corruption trial was suspended Friday pending the final appeal by his co-defendant, who was convicted of accepting a bribe in exchange for lying in court to protect the premier’s business interests.

Prosecutors accuse Berlusconi of ordering the 1997 payment of $600,000 to British lawyer David Mills in exchange for his false testimony in two trials. Both Berlusconi and Mills have denied wrongdoing. Mills, who was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison, is in the second and final round of appeals against his conviction in the case.

Berlusconi’s portion of the trial, meanwhile, had been put on hold by an immunity law sparing him from prosecution while in office. But the trial resumed in December after Italy’s Constitutional Court overturned the law.

On Friday, the three-judge panel in Milan suspended the trial again until Feb. 27, pending a ruling on Mills’ appeal. The defense had argued that the Mills case ruling could influence Berlusconi’s case. The statute of limitations on the case was frozen until the new date.

“The Supreme Court sentence will allow the trial to proceed with more clarity,” defense lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said. “We are not trying to disrupt the proceedings. In fact, it was I who asked to freeze the statute of limitations, which I was not obligated by law to do.”

Berlusconi skipped the hearing Friday, but Ghedini said the premier never intended to show up until further along when issues of substance arise.

The judges also rejected a defense motion to restart Berlusconi’s portion of the trial from scratch, without allowing any evidence heard by the previous court. The defense had argued that carrying over the evidence would be prejudicial.

The case is one of two in Milan courts restarted against the premier since the immunity law was thrown out.

In the other case, Berlusconi and others are accused of overpaying for rights to show U.S. movies on Berlusconi’s Mediaset television empire and pocketing the difference.

Although defendants in Italian trials are not required to be present, Berlusconi has said he wants to defend himself in person against the charges.

At the same time, Ghedini, who is also a member of parliament, is pressing for a new law that would shorten trial times. Critics say it is tailor-made to end the ongoing trials. Ghedini told reporters in Milan that there was no way the law would be passed before Mills’ final appeal is decided.

Berlusconi, a media magnate-turned-politician, has faced numerous trials for his Milan business dealings. He has always been acquitted or seen the statute of limitations expire, and has maintained that he is an innocent victim of politically motivated magistrates.

The premier returned to public life this week, nearly a month after a man threw a statuette of Milan’s cathedral at his face during a Milan rally. The 73-year-old leader was hospitalized for a few days with a broken nose and two broken teeth.