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Italian Premier Cleared In Court

A Milan court on Friday acquitted Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi of corruption charges — a major victory in the billionaire business baron's decade-long battle with legal woes he blamed on left-wing prosecutors.

More than 24 hours after the case went to the three-judge jury, Judge Francesco Castellano read the verdict to the court: acquittal on one count and a ruling that the statute of limitations had run out on the second corruption charge.

In a written statement, Berlusconi welcomed the verdict as "better late than never."

"This closes 10 years of trials," said Niccolo Ghedini, one of Berlusconi's defense attorneys.

Throughout his 4 1/2-year trial, the media baron had maintained his innocence, insisting he was the victim of left-wing prosecutors.

"In any other country it would have taken six months to reach this conclusion that took eight years to reach here," Ghedini said, referring to the time leading up to the trial, when prosecutors pursued the case.

Castellano said Berlusconi was innocent of a charge that he had bribed judges in connection with the sale in the 1980s of the SME state food conglomerate. Prosecutors alleged Berlusconi wanted to stop the company from being sold to a rival top industrialist in Italy, Carlo De Benedetti.

The second corruption charge grew out of accusations Berlusconi had kept a different judge on his payroll in case of criminal charges against his business empire.

Castellano mentioned a 1991 money transfer with which prosecutors had alleged Berlusconi had violated corruption laws, but that the statute of limitations had run out on that charge.

Another Berlusconi lawyer, Gaetano Pecorella, said the defense would appeal the court's finding that time limits had run out on prosecuting the second trial because it wanted to have a ruling of his innocence in connection with the payment. "We will appeal because we want to have total clarity on this," Pecorella said on Sky TG24 TV.

In an earlier trial, a close Berlusconi associate, Cesare Previti, was convicted of corruption in connection with that same transfer of US$433,000 (euro327,000) as was a Rome judge.

Pecorella said because was the ruling so complex and journalists were bombarding him with questions he hadn't had the chance yet to call Berlusconi.

In 1985, judges blocked the SME sale and ruled in favor of a group of magnates including Berlusconi. But the sale never came off, and the food group was later sold off in parcels.

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of eight years for conviction on both counts.

Berlusconi didn't show up for the verdict. Italy doesn't require defendants to attend their trials, and he came only three times to hearings during the 4-1/2 year long trial.