Mills decision a boost for Berlusconi

Sat, Feb 27, 2010, 00:00

THE LATEST episode in the long and tortured relationship between Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the judiciary has triggered diametrically opposed views. So was he acquitted, or did (judicial) time expire?

On Thursday of this week, Italy’s final appeals court, the Cassazione, ruled that a conviction against Mr Berlusconi’s London-based lawyer David Mills, estranged husband of UK Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, should be dropped because “the crime is now extinct”. Mills had been given a four-and-a-half year sentence for corruption at two previous levels of judgment, with both courts ruling that he had accepted a $600,000 bribe from Mr Berlusconi in exchange for less than complete testimony.

In both judgments, the court ruled that Mills had committed perjury on behalf of Mr Berlusconi’s Fininvest group in two Milan trials in the 1990s: the “All Iberian” case concerning Fininvest’s network of off-shore companies; and another case in which the prime minister’s company was accused of bribing tax inspectors. Mills had been called to give evidence at those trials as he was one of the architects of the network of offshore companies.

This week’s ruling means the charges against Mills, and by implication Mr Berlusconi, are dropped because the statute of limitations has expired. More than 10 years has passed since the “crime” was committed.

Although the court’s ruling was therefore clearly one of prescrizione (statute of limitations), yesterday’s lunchtime TV news bulletin on state broadcaster Rai Uno spoke of an “acquittal”, prompting further polemics from centre-left opposition.

Former investigating magistrates Antonio Di Pietro and Felice Casson were just two of many opposition figures who pointed out that the Cassazione’s ruling had upheld the original “guilty” verdict but had dismissed the case on the technicality of the statute of limitations. Mr Di Pietro repeated calls for Mr Berlusconi’s resignation pointing out that if Mills had committed perjury, he had done so on behalf of the prime minister. “If someone has accepted a bribe, and the ruling of the Cassazione confirms this fact, then there has to be someone who bribed him. In any normal country, the prime minister would have already resigned.”

Such comments did not stop Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right from claiming victory, arguing that the Cassazione’s judgment is proof that for the last 15 years Mr Berlusconi has been the victim of a political witch-hunt, masterminded by leftist investigating magistrates. For the centre-right, as for the lunchtime news, a prescrizione easily became an assoluzione (acquittal).

This week’s ruling is likely to galvanise the centre-right’s programme of judicial reform which, among other things, will mean the government proposes two new Bills shortly. One severely curtails the use of telephonic surveillance during judicial investigations; the other will create a “legitimate impediment” clause which, in effect, will grant Mr Berlusconi temporary immunity while in office.