Secrecy battle victory for Mills

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The Independent Online

Italian prosecutors were thwarted today in an attempt to have crucial evidence relating to the trial of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Olympics minister Tessa Jowell's estranged husband David Mills heard in public.

Advocates for the two men told a London court that there would be a " feeding frenzy" and a "media circus" unless evidence relating to the fraud case was held in private.

Italian judges, who travelled to the UK to attend yesterday's session were also excluded by the court order but may have the opportunity to hear the evidence at a later date.

The City of Westminster Magistrates' Court was today hearing from witnesses relating to charges of fraud against Mr Mills and Mr Berlusconi.

The pair are currently being tried by an Italian court on charges of false accounting, embezzlement and tax fraud, in the purchase by the former Italian premier's Mediaset empire of TV rights for US movies.

Mr Mills is alleged to have set up off-shore firms that helped Mr Berlusconi's company avoid tax relating to tax liability on the TV rights.

During a four-day session, which opened today, evidence is due to be gathered from eight witnesses including tax advisors, accountants and colleagues of Mr Mills.

But in court, lawyers for Mr Berlusconi and Mr Mills said having the session held in public would serve no purpose.

They sought a private hearing, excluding Italian judges and the press, citing that some of the witnesses intend to invoke protection under Italian law against being compelled to give evidence.

In Italy, client confidentiality is wider reaching than in the UK, encompassing advisors on financial and tax issues.

Hugo Keith, Mr Mills' lawyer, said: "Given the press publicity and the notoriety of this case, given the leaks, given the absence of any good reason why it should be held in public. It would merely generate further publicity and a feeding frenzy."

Khawar Qureshi QC, on behalf of Italian prosecutors, said: "A media circus and embarrassment has never been a reason for sessions to be held in private."

But senior district judge Tim Workman said that it would be in the interest of justice that some evidence was held in private.

Evidence gathering is set to continue this afternoon. Berlusconi and Mills both deny the charges.