MILAN – Silvio Berlusconi faces a verdict on bribery charges on Saturday in one of four trials against a once dominant presence in Italian politics who is increasingly harried by legal woes.
Judges will retire to consider the verdict after the defence makes its final arguments in a hearing in Milan set to start at around 0900 GMT. Lawyers said they were expecting the verdict to come in the late afternoon or evening.
Prosecutors have requested a five-year prison term for Berlusconi, who protests his innocence, but he is unlikely to see the inside of a cell even if convicted because the case is about to expire under a statute of limitations.
Sentencing guidelines in Italy are also very lenient for over-70s and the larger-than-life billionaire is 75 years old.
The trial, which has been going on for five years, revolves around the allegation that Berlusconi paid off his former British tax lawyer David Mills to provide false testimony in his favour in two trials in the 1990s.
The alleged bribe for the offshore tax expert was $600,000 (445,000 euros).
Mills was tried in absentia, convicted in February 2009 and sentenced to four and a half years in prison. The verdict was upheld later that year.
The case against Mills however expired in 2010, although judges stressed that they believed he was guilty of an act of “very serious” corruption.
Berlusconi has done everything to put off a verdict in the Mills case, including a last-minute appeal from his lawyers that the case be thrown out because the judges had refused to listen to all the defence witnesses.
The appeal was rejected but Berlusconi on Friday went back on the offensive.
“The Mills trial is just one of numerous invented proceedings against me. In total, more than 100 legal procedures, over 900 prosecutors have busied themselves with me and with my company,” Berlusconi said in a statement.
“Two thousand six hundred hearings in 14 years, more than 400 million euros in fees for lawyers and consultants — these are impressive records not just on a global level but on a universal level, on a solar system level,” he said.
Berlusconi in particular criticised the prosecution’s “incredible thesis” that the crime was committed not when the money was allegedly given to the lawyer but when the lawyer began spending it two years later.
This, he said, was done so as to ensure the case did not expire.
Angelino Alfano, leader of the People of Freedom party founded by Berlusconi and a former justice minister, said: “This is a useless verdict.”
“We feel bitterness since everyone who has ever dealt with justice always says the same thing: we should not be wasting time with dead cases,” he said in a reference to cases that are close to the statute of limitations.
Berlusconi’s defence says the case has already expired, while prosecutors say it still has a few months left. Judges are expected to clarify the issue.
A conviction “would be a major blow to his prestige nationally and internationally”, James Walston, a professor at the American University in Rome, said earlier, adding however: “He’s not going to jail.”
Berlusconi has been struggling with the law ever since entering political life in 1993 with his “Forza Italia” (“Go Italy”) party.
Berlusconi was convicted three times in 1997 and 1998 for corruption, false accounting and illicit financing of a political party. But the convictions were all either overturned on appeal or expired under the statute of limitations.
He is also on trial for sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of power, for tax fraud and for violating official secrets.
Even if he escapes prison in the bribery case, observers say that a guilty sentence may weaken his rumoured ambitions to run for the presidency next year.
“This would just be one of the many reasons that he would be an unsuitable candidate,” Walston said.