A Milan court acquitted Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on corruption charges that have dogged him throughout his term, a ruling he said was "better late than never."
By clearing the billionaire politician of charges he bribed judges in the 1980s, the three-judge panel's verdict Friday deprived the center-left opposition of fodder in the run-up to 2006 elections. It also spared the country the potential embarrassment of having its leader convicted and capped a trial that began four and a half years ago, before Berlusconi took office. "Better late than never," Berlusconi said in a statement after the verdict. "I was right to be serene because my conscience was clear that I'd done nothing wrong."
In a related development, an Italian court yesterday found a close political ally and business associate of Berlusconi guilty of colluding with the Mafia, and sentenced him to nine years in prison.
The verdict came less than 24 hours after Berlusconi escaped conviction.
Marcello Dell'Utri, a senator in Berlusconi's Forza Italia party and a former chairman of the prime minister's advertising firm Publitalia, had been accused of acting as a link between the mob and Italy's business and political elite. The verdict comes a week before Berlusconi's planned trip to Washington for talks with US President George W. Bush.
After the case went to the panel, Judge Francesco Castellano read the verdict: acquittal on one count and a ruling that the statute of limitations had run out on the second corruption charge.