By COLLEEN BARRY Associated Press
MILAN (AP) — Italian former Premier Silvio Berlusconi was found not guilty Wednesday of witness tampering, in a trial related to the sexually charged “bunga bunga” parties he held at his villa near Milan while he was in office.
The six-year-old trial is the third and likely final one in a scandal that made headlines around the world in 2010 when Berlusconi — as a sitting premier — faced charges of having paid for sex with an underage girl. He was eventually acquitted.
In the third trial, Berlusconi faced charges of paying off witnesses to lie in earlier trials. Prosecutors had sought a six-year prison sentence for him, along with 10 million euros ($10.7 million) in damages. A further 28 people, including the woman at the center of the scandal, Karima el-Mahroug, were also all found not guilty on Wednesday.
“I am very happy,” el-Mahroug told reporters after hearing the acquittal, adding that it showed she had always spoken the truth. ”I just need a moment to assimilate this fact, to believe it.”
Berlusconi was not present as the verdict was read, but in an Instagram post said the acquittal had ended years of “suffering, of mud and of incalculable political damage.”
His lawyer, Federico Cecconi, called the verdict, which formally found no crime had been committed, “the fullest acquittal we could achieve.”
The earlier trials took place as Berlusconi still wielded considerable power as premier, raising concern among security officials that he had left himself vulnerable to extortion by hosting young women at his villa.
The 86-year-old three-time former premier is currently head of the third party in Italy’s right-wing governing coalition, whose popularity has shrunk significantly from its heyday to around 6% now, according to polls.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni welcomed Wednesday’s verdict, saying it “puts an end to a long judicial affair that had important repercussions on Italian political and institutional life.”
Meloni’s administration this week took the step of removing the government as an injured party in the case, to avoid creating an awkward political dynamic in the case of guilty verdicts.
Berlusconi’s defense described the dinner parties, dating from 2010, as elegant soirees; prosecutors said they were sex-fueled gatherings that women were paid to attend and where witnesses described showgirls stripping provocatively for the then-Italian leader.
Both Berlusconi and el-Mahroug, who was 17 at the time, denied ever having sex with each other, and el-Mahroug, now 30, says she never worked as a prostitute.