Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi escaped conviction in a major corruption trial on Friday after a court invoked a statute of limitations that meant time had run out to sentence him for bribery.
Berlusconi welcomed the verdict, which brought down the curtain on a trial that lasted almost five years, saying he had always expected to be cleared.
“I was right to have been completely at peace about this because I was fully aware that I didn’t do anything wrong,” the billionaire media mogul said in a statement in Rome.
The verdict, read to a packed court in Italy’s financial capital, implied that the 68-year-old Berlusconi was guilty of one count of authorizing a $434,404 bribe to a Rome judge in 1991 but could not be sentenced because of the time limit.
The court then acquitted Berlusconi of a second charge of bribing the judiciary in the late 1980s to ensure victory in a contested takeover battle for a state owned food group.
Although Berlusconi emerges from the case with a clean criminal record, critics said the verdict still left a shadow over his reputation because the court had deployed a mechanism that prevented sentencing.
“Once more people are playing with words in order to defraud public opinion. The statute of limitations is not a declaration of innocence but it presumes guilt,” said opposition politician Antonio di Pietro, a former star anti-graft magistrate.
“It is important to remember that only the length of time that has passed prohibited the judges from ruling on the merits of the case,” he said.
Berlusconi, the first serving Italian prime minister to face a criminal trial, had always maintained his innocence and said he was the victim of a witchhunt by left-wing magistrates, who turned on him when he entered politics in 1994.