Judges to rule on Berlusconi bribery case

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Italy's billionaire Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, faces the most testing judgment of his political life today, when three judges in Milan are expected to decide whether he is guilty of corruption.

Mr Berlusconi has been found guilty of lesser charges before, and has seen the convictions overturned thanks to the statute of limitations. But today's judgment on allegations that he bribed judges is the most serious accusation he has faced. The prosecutor has demanded an eight-year jail sentence. Coincidentally, the trial in Palermo, Sicily, of a close friend and colleague of Mr Berlusconi's is also expected to reach judgment in the next few days. Marcello dell'Utri, a senator and former head of Mr Berlusconi's advertising company Publitalia, is on trial for allegedly persuading the Mafia to swing its support behind Forza Italia, Mr Berlusconi's party.

Mr Berlusconi's case has lasted a record 10 years from first investigation to final summing-up. Since becoming Prime Minister for a second term in 2001 he has done everything in his power to avoid the judgment of the court. He decriminalised the offence of false accounting (one of the offences on his charge sheet), forced through a law enabling cases to be moved to a different bench if judges were proved to be biased and introduced a new law giving him and Italy's other top office-holders immunity from prosecution.

But in the long run none of these gambits did the trick. The last of them, the "immunity" loophole, was sewn up by the Constitutional Court.

It was an elegant Milanese antique dealer called Stefania Ariosto who brought the case to light, telling investigators in Rome that she had seen one of Mr Berlusconi's lawyers, Cesare Previti, hand over large sums in cash to a judge called Renato Squillante during a boat trip on the Tiber.

In early 1996, a listening device placed under an ashtray in a Roman bar where Squillante was drinking lent substance to her allegations. The judge and two colleagues were arrested.

Painstaking work - impeded but not derailed by new rules introduced by Mr Berlusconi, making it harder to use evidence from Swiss sources in Italian trials - produced a paper trail linking payments from Swiss bank accounts held by Mr Berlusconi to Previti, and from Previti to Squillante. Specifically prosecutors charged that, as head of his finance company, Fininvest, Mr Berlusconi had authorised the payment of $434,404 from Fininvest accounts which had reached Squillante by way of Previti.

Last year Mr Berlusconi managed to abstract himself from the case thanks to the immunity law he had introduced, but the case against the others went forward and last November Previti and Squillante were found guilty of corruption and given five and eight years in jail respectively.

As is routine in Italy, both men are certain to exhaust the appeals process and if necessary take their cases all the way to the Court of Cassation without setting foot inside jail - by which time the cases may well have exceeded their shelf lives.

The most notorious charge against Previti and Squillante, that they conspired to reverse the sale of part of a state-owned conglomerate called SME to a business rival of Mr Berlusconi, was rejected by the judges for lack of evidence. But the charge that Previti kept Squillante on the payroll of the Berlusconi company Fininvest to ensure favourable judgments was upheld.

The trial of Mr Berlusconi alone was resumed this spring with new judges after the immunity law was thrown out.

Mr Berlusconi has refused to consider resigning should he be found guilty. But the charge is of a gravity rare even in a country like Italy where corruption is a fact of life.