MILAN -- Silvio Berlusconi's corruption trial ended yesterday with a court ruling that the statute of limitations had run out, handing the former premier another victory in a string of judicial challenges.

Berlusconi, 75, who stepped down as premier in November as the sovereign debt crisis flared, was accused of paying a British lawyer, David Mills, $600,000 to lie at two 1990s trials to shield the politician and his Fininvest holding company from charges related to offshore companies Mills helped set up.

The billionaire media mogul wasn't in the Milan courtroom when the chief judge, Francesca Vitale, read out the verdict after 2 1/2 hours of deliberations, but his lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said he had informed him briefly by telephone.

Ghedini said the defense had hoped for a full acquittal, leaving open the possibility of an appeal. In Italy, both sides can appeal court decisions. Prosecutor Fabio De Pasquale told reporters "it's useless to comment."

The five-year-long trial was a race against the statute of limitations, which had spared Berlusconi verdicts in other trials related to his media business since the 1990s.

Prosecutors had changed the timing of the alleged crime from when Mills took the stand to when the money changed hands, adding two years to the clock.

And defense lawyer Ghedini, a lawmaker, helped draft a law that gave the sitting premier immunity, drawing fire that he was using Parliament to shield himself. The law was watered down in court as unconstitutional.

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