An Italian appeals court on Friday acquitted former premier Silvio Berlusconi in a sex-for-hire case, reversing a lower court conviction that had carried a seven-year prison sentence and a lifetime ban on holding political office.
The case has grabbed global attention, offering an unseemly peek into the 77-year-old three-time premier's private life, with witness testimony revealing raunchy, sex-fuelled "bunga-bunga" parties at his private villa attended by a bevy of aspiring showgirls.
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The prosecution alleged that Berlusconi had paid for sex with an underage prostitute, a Moroccan named Karima el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby, and then using his influence to cover it up.
He denied the charges, saying the case was politically motivated by magistrates trying to drive him from power. Both he and el-Mahroug, who was 17 when she frequented the premier's villa, denied ever having had sex.
The acquittal was announced just as Berlusconi was leaving a facility for Alzheimer's patients where he is performing community service for a separate conviction on a tax fraud charge. That is the only case finalized against Berlusconi, who has faced dozens of trials, mostly for his business dealings.
Berlusconi thrust his hand from a car as he was being driven away from facility and a political supporter waiting at the gate grabbed his hand and shook it. The window was then rolled up and the media mogul waved as he was driven away.
Berlusconi issued a statement to supporters saying the verdict confirmed "what I have always said: that the vast majority of Italian magistrates do their work quietly, with admirable balance and rigor."
Berlusconi's defence lawyer, Franco Coppi, said the decision "goes beyond the rosiest predictions," adding that he would have been satisfied with an acquittal for lack of evidence. But the court went further, saying that no crimes had been committed.
While the court has 90 days to issue its reasoning, Coppi said the decision to acquit for paying an underage prostitute for sex could have been due to Berlusconi's testimony that he believed el-Mahroug was over 18, irrespective of whether he had sex with her.
The case may not end there, however. Prosecutors can challenge Friday's acquittal in Italy's highest criminal court, the Court of Cassation.
Berlusconi also is on trial in Naples accused of political corruption, and under investigation in Milan accused of witness-tampering in the sex-for-hire trial and in another related case involving three aides who were convicted of procuring prostitutes for his parties.
Berlusconi remains influential on the Italian political scene as head of his Forza Italia party, despite the tax fraud conviction's ban on holding political office for two years that led the Senate to yank his seat.
Premier Matteo Renzi has sought Berlusconi's support for difficult election law reforms.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, a longtime ally who split from Berlusconi last year, said the verdict would give Berlusconi more authority to continue his political work and "certainly reinforce the path ... to change the country."
The verdict was widely lauded by political backers. One of Berlusconi's staunchest, lawmaker Renato Brunetta, hailed `'Berlusconi innocent!!!" on Twitter.