Berlusconi Ally Is Guilty of Corruption

From Reuters

A court Saturday sentenced a friend of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to five years in jail for corruption but cleared him of another key accusation that has also been leveled against the Italian leader.

Cesare Previti, a former defense minister who had been on trial for three years, was convicted on charges of paying a $434,000 bribe to a Rome judge in 1991. He was acquitted on another charge related to the privatization of food company SME in the 1980s.

Prosecutors in Milan had asked for an 11-year sentence for Previti. He and Berlusconi have both denied the charges and said they are victims of a politically motivated campaign.

Berlusconi had faced the same charges until Parliament passed an immunity law for the prime minister and other top officials this year, shortly before Italy took over the rotating presidency of the European Union.

The law, whose constitutionality is being challenged, split off Berlusconi's case from that of Previti and others charged.

Berlusconi's lawyers said that the Previti verdict was meaningless for the prime minister.

"The sentence can't directly influence Berlusconi's position," Nicolo Ghedini said. "We're talking about different people."

He also argued that the judges who convicted Previti would be unable to rule on the same charges should the Berlusconi trial resume.

Italy's constitutional court is due to rule on the immunity law Dec. 9. If it is upheld, Berlusconi will be safe from prosecution until he leaves office. His term is due to end in 2006.

Among Previti's seven codefendants in the bribery trial, a now retired judge received an eight-year jail term, and a lawyer was sentenced to four years' imprisonment Saturday. Three of the remaining defendants were acquitted, and two were cleared because too much time had elapsed since the initial charges.

The judges also ordered Previti and the other two defendants to pay $511,000 in damages and legal fees.

Previti last week failed to convince the Supreme Court that magistrates in Milan were biased against him and that the case should therefore start from scratch in another city.

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