MILAN: An Italian court on Wednesday acquitted Silvio Berlusconi over allegations of bribing witnesses in an underage prostitution case that has dogged the former prime minister for more than a decade.
Berlusconi was accused of paying 24 people, mostly young guests at his so-called Bunga Bunga parties, to provide false testimony in a previous trial where he was charged with paying for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan nightclub dancer.
In a ruling read out in court, the judge said there was no case to answer.
Prosecutors had demanded a six-year prison term for Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party is a key component of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's conservative coalition.
Berlusconi, 86, had denied the allegations and said he is the victim of a long-running plot by magistrates to hound him from politics.
“I can only express our utmost satisfaction for this unequivocal acquittal,” said Berlusconi's lawyer Federico Cecconi.
Meloni welcomed the decision.
“The acquittal of Silvio Berlusconi is excellent news that puts an end to a long legal case that also had important repercussions on Italian political and institutional life,” she said in a statement.
The other 28 co-defendants, many of them young women accused of accepting bribes, were also all acquitted, including the Moroccan dancer Karima El Mahroug, better known by her stage name, Ruby the Heartstealer.
El Mahroug also expressed her relief. “I am so happy … It's a liberation from years that were tough to say the least. It overwhelmed me when I was 17 and it carried on until I was 30. It was a nightmare,” she told reporters.
The scandal over the evening parties contributed to Berlusconi's downfall as prime minister in 2011, marking the end of his fourth government.
He was eventually acquitted in the initial case, with an appeals court ruling that while he had paid a teenager for sex, there was no proof he knew she was a minor. He was put in the dock again after being accused of bribing witnesses.
In a written summary of its ruling, the Milan court said that those who gave evidence in the original case should have been classified as suspects and not as witnesses, meaning the latest charges did not apply.
Berlusconi has acknowledged giving money to various of his guests, but said it was offered spontaneously as compensation for the reputational damage they had suffered by being associated with his infamous parties.
Ever since he entered politics in 1994, Berlusconi's career has been marked by legal battles and he was temporarily banned from political office after a conviction for tax fraud in 2013. That ban has long expired and he returned to the Senate in 2022 national elections.