Italy's Berlusconi faces quicker verdict in graft trial

MILAN, Sept 19 Mon Sep 19, 2011 1:37pm EDT

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MILAN, Sept 19 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces a quicker than initially expected verdict in a graft trial where he is accused of bribing a British lawyer after judges decided on Monday to cut the number of witnesses who will be heard by the court.

In the case, which dates back to 1997, Berlusconi is accused of bribing British lawyer David Mills with $600,000 to give false evidence about his business interests. He denies any wrongdoing.

The trial resumed in March after Italy's top court lifted Berlusconi's automatic immunity from prosecution, but the case risks being shelved in February next year without a verdict unless the court reaches a conclusion before the statute of limitations kicks in.

Should Berlusconi be found guilty, the verdict would in any case be little more than symbolic as his lawyers would then likely appeal and the case would have to be dropped because the alleged offence was committed too long ago to be punished.

Still, Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini reacted angrily to the judges' decision to strike 10 people off the list of witnesses, saying it made the defence team "irrelevant".

The last witness in the case, Mills, is now due to testify on Oct. 24, while the court hopes to hear Berlusconi himself on Oct. 28. Prosecutors in the case had asked the court to speed up the hearing of witnesses.

Mills was convicted of taking the bribe from Berlusconi and sentenced to 4-1/2 years in jail in a separate trial, but a higher court effectively killed the case under the statute of limitations.

Berlusconi attended Monday's hearing of the trial, one of four court cases against him -- including a sex trial in which he is accused of paying to sleep with an underage prostitute and then abusing his power to cover up the affair.

He did not speak to reporters, except for saying: "I am fine, but you guys are looking ugly."

Berlusconi denies all charges and says he is the victim of a politically-motivated campaign by leftist magistrates trying to oust him from power at a time where he is seeking to shield Italy from a spreading debt crisis.

(Reporting by Sara Rossi)

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