IMAGE: Silvio Berlusconi
 Filippo Monteforte  /  AFP/Getty Images
Silvio Berlusconi speaks to lawmakers in Italy's parliament on March 2.
updated 3/22/2007 6:00:42 PM ET 2007-03-22T22:00:42

Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi is back on trial in another high-profile corruption case, but the notoriously slow pace of Italy's justice system may sweep away the charges without a verdict.

Unless a decision is reached by next February — considered highly unlikely — and the two appeals allowed under Italian law are completed by the same date, the case will be wiped off the books by the statute of limitations.

Lawyers and prosecutors agree it is increasingly hard to put defendants in prison in Italy.

The long and inefficient trial process, changes in the statute of limitations enacted under Berlusconi, and an amnesty for minor crimes all raise the prospect that thousands of criminals will serve no prison time.

"In Italy, unlike the United States, prosecutors don't have discretion and are obligated to pursue all possible crimes, even the most minor," said Armando Spataro, who prosecutes key terrorism cases in Milan.

Manrico Colazza, a defense attorney, agrees, adding that in Rome some magistrates "brag about how many cases they have handled" even though most are minor offenses.

Statute halved
Legislation approved while Berlusconi was premier shortened the statute of limitations for prosecuting white collar crimes from 15 to 7 1/2 years — a change many said was adopted to shield the billionaire media magnate and his associates. Premier Romano Prodi's government has promised to reconsider the measure.

The current case against Berlusconi alleges he ordered payment of at least $600,000 to his co-defendant, David Mills, in exchange for the British lawyer's false testimony in two earlier trials against Berlusconi.

Berlusconi and Mills deny the allegations; Berlusconi's lawyer calls the case a "waste of time."

The "clock" started on the statute of limitations at the time of the alleged payment a decade ago.

The two men are also co-defendants in another corruption case in which the statute of limitations kicks in as early as October.

"I am confident the trials will end with an acquittal," said Berlusconi's lawyer, Nicolo Ghedini, while acknowledging the many cases will likely lapse.

Legal experts say the trial process can last as long as eight years in Italy, and defendants with deep pockets can afford to appeal to the nation's highest court.

'Historic lack of attention'
"In Italy, there is a historic lack of attention to make the judicial system work well," said Carlo Guarnieri, a political science professor at Bologna University. "Moreover, technical legal procedures for both civil and penal cases are extremely complex."

As if the system were not already slow enough — trials are not held continuously and sessions are sometimes limited to one a month because of the crowded court calendar — a partial amnesty last year also could cause problems.

Because the amnesty, which was intended to ease prison overcrowding, was not accompanied by a pardon, the Superior Council of Magistrates warned that 80 percent of pending cases must go ahead but will not result in jail time.

The judges have pleaded for some sort of priority system for important cases.

Berlusconi has faced years of legal challenges by prosecutors he claims are leftists with political agendas. His latest trial, which began a week ago, comes when he is trying to present his conservative forces as an alternative to Prodi's shaky coalition government.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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