By Manuela D'Alessandro
MILAN (Reuters) - Italian judges on Saturday ended former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's trial on charges of bribing British lawyer David Mills, saying the statute of limitations had run out and a verdict could not be reached.
The case surrounding Mills was one of the most prominent of the scandals involving Berlusconi, Italy's richest media entrepreneur as well as its dominant political figure of the past two decades.
Berlusconi was not in the Milan court to hear Judge Francesca Vitale read a brief statement declaring that the trial, which began in 2007, was now closed.
The decision removes the threat of sanction for the 75-year-old conservative, for whom prosecutors had been seeking a five-year prison sentence.
Fabrizio Cicchitto, parliamentary leader of Berlusconi's centre-right PDL party, said the decision "avoided the conviction of an innocent man." However, Berlusconi's lawyers had hoped for an acquittal.
"This is a sentence to fight your whole life long," Piero Longo, one of his lawyers, told reporters after the hearing.
The former prime minister's opponents, however, leapt on the ruling and accused Berlusconi of avoiding conviction on a technicality. The decision was down to the strict limits on the length of criminal trials - a widely criticized feature given Italy's notoriously slow justice system.
"Once again Berlusconi has been saved from facing up to his responsibilities by the statute of limitations," former anti-corruption magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, now head of the Italy of Values party, said in a statement.
Mills was convicted in 2009 of taking a $600,000 bribe from Berlusconi in return for agreeing to withhold incriminating details about the former premier's business dealings when he testified in two court cases.
But the case against Mills was shelved the following year because the statute of limitations had run out, and the British lawyer was never extradited to serve his 4 1/2 year sentence.
Berlusconi, who resigned as prime minister in November as the euro zone crisis menaced Italy, has always denied wrongdoing in the case, repeatedly accusing what he called politically biased left-wing judges of mounting a campaign to destroy him.
He has been involved in a string of legal cases since he entered politics in 1994. He has either been acquitted or seen the cases expire under Italy's statute of limitations.
Berlusconi still faces a series of trials linked to his Mediaset broadcasting empire, as well as a trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute.
(Writing By James Mackenzie; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)