Berlusconi Acquitted of Corruption Charges

A Milan (search) court acquitted Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi (search) of corruption charges Friday — a major victory in the billionaire media baron's decade-long battle with legal woes he has blamed on left-wing prosecutors.

More than 24 hours after the case went to the three-judge jury, Judge Francesco Castellano read the verdict to the court: acquittal on one count and a ruling that the statute of limitations had run out on the second corruption charge.

Throughout his trial, Berlusconi has maintained his innocence.

"This closes 10 years of trials," said Niccolo Ghedini, one of Berlusconi's defense attorneys.

Castellano said Berlusconi was innocent of a charge that he had bribed judges in connection with the sale of the SME state food conglomerate. Prosecutors alleged Berlusconi wanted to stop the company from being sold to a rival top industrialist in Italy, Carlo De Benedetti.

In 1985, judges blocked the SME sale and ruled in favor of a group of magnates including Berlusconi. The food group was later sold off in parcels.

The second corruption charge grew out of accusations Berlusconi kept a different judge on his payroll in case of criminal charges stemming against his business empire. Castellano said that the statute of limitations had run out on that charge.

Ghedini said Berlusconi's defense team would have preferred a ruling on the second charge as well, rather than just the dismissal for time limitations.

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of eight years for conviction on both counts.

Berlusconi didn't show up for the verdict. Italy doesn't require defendants to attend their trials, and he came only three times to hearings during the 4 1/2-year-long trial.