Judges set Dec. 4 as new Berlusconi trial date

AP News
Posted: Nov 27, 2009 11:44 AM

A new panel of judges will formally open Premier Silvio Berlusconi's bribery trial on Dec. 4, more than a year after it was frozen by a now-defunct immunity law.

"I am confident that if we have a new, impartial judge, Berlusconi will be acquitted," the premier's defense lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, told reporters after a brief hearing Friday to restart the trial.

The three judges who convicted Berlusconi's co-defendant, British lawyer David Mills, of accepting a $600,000 bribe to lie to protect the media mogul-turned-politician set the hearing date after the immunity law was thrown out last month.

In the case, Berlusconi is accused of ordering the 1997 payment to Mills in exchange for his false testimony at two hearings in other corruption cases. Berlusconi denies wrongdoing.

Under Italian law, the panel must be replaced if its members reach a verdict on a co-defendant, and the trial starts almost from scratch with many witnesses testifying again and new ones called. The court is up against a statute of limitations on the alleged crimes that expires in 2011.

Ghedini said the premier planned to attend the trial, as he has announced his intention to attend another trial recently opened for tax fraud in his Mediaset media empire's purchase of U.S. TV rights. Berlusconi denies wrongdoing.

Berlusconi cannot attend next week's session because it conflicts with his regular weekly Cabinet meeting, Ghedini said. The calendar for future hearings is expected to be set during that session, taking into consideration the premier's availability.

The TV rights trial has been postponed until Jan. 18, a date Ghedini said Berlusconi would be available. However, Ghedini also has said the premier will attend sessions when there is pertinent testimony, so it is not yet clear if he will attend that day.

Last month, an appeals court upheld the conviction against Mills and confirmed his 4 1/2 year sentence, as well as a damages payment of euro250,000 to the premier's office, now held by Berlusconi, which was the result of a petition by Romano Prodi when he was in office. Mills maintains his innocence and his lawyers are launching what will be a final appeal to a higher court.

Berlusconi, 73, has a long history of legal troubles linked to his business interests based in Milan. In past cases, he was either acquitted or cleared of the charges because the statute of limitations had expired. He has always maintained his innocence, and that he is the victim of politically motivated magistrates.

Ghedini is spearheading legislation that would cap the length of certain trials to six years, which if successful is widely expected to shut down the Mediaset trial and one other awaiting Berlusconi in Milan.