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Berlusconi and Mills face trial

The former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is set to go on trial in Milan alongside 12 other defendants, including his former British lawyer, David Mills.

Together they are accused of tax fraud and money laundering. It is alleged that Mills - the estranged husband of British Culture secretary Tessa Jowell - helped Berlusconi to set up a network of offshore companies in the early 1990s. Prosecutors say these offshore companies were used to buy American film rights which were sold at hugely inflated prices to Berlusconi's television company, Mediaset. It was a complex system designed, they allege, to ensure the former prime minister avoided paying tax. The men on trial face between four and 12 years in jail if convicted. They all deny any wrongdoing. In a related trial to begin in the new year, Mills and Berlusconi will appear alone to face charges of perverting the course of justice. It is alleged that Mills was paid £316,000 ($600,000) for not revealing details of the offshore companies during two previous trials in 1997 and 1998, in which he gave evidence as an expert witness. Mills initially admitted receiving money from Berlusconi "in recognition" of the evidence he gave, but later recanted, saying the money was paid to him by an Italian shipping magnate, Diego Attanasio. The $600,000 payment has caused no end of problems for Mills' estranged wife, Tessa Jowell. It was alleged the money which passed through a series of offshore accounts was later used to pay off a loan that had been raised on their London home for a similar amount. Earlier this year, the culture secretary was forced to answer awkward questions about what she knew of the money, but she was cleared of breaching any ministerial code of conduct. Whatever the evidence in either of these two cases, experts say it is unlikely any of the men will ever go to jail.

Legislation passed by Berlusconi's government in 2005 eases the threat for rich defendants in white-collar cases. Tessa Jowell leaving her north London home on Monday, 6 March Jowell was cleared of breaching any ministerial code of conduct The changes to the law cut the statute of limitations (after which a crime is automatically expunged), for corruption, fraud and false accounting. On many of the charges the defendants face, prosecuting magistrates have barely a year to secure any conviction - though on one charge of money laundering they do have more time. Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, still harbours ambitions of returning to power for a third time. His vast business empire includes a private TV network, a publishing conglomerate, insurance companies and department stores. Mediaset owns three national television channels and an advertising group in Italy, and controls Spain's television channel, Telecinco. Last year it recorded profits of £406 million ($770 million). In June, a court in Madrid began re-examining a tax fraud case against Berlusconi just two weeks after he lost power and his right to immunity under Spanish law. He is accused in Spain of covering up tax fraud of almost £74 million ($140 million) during the early 1990s in connection with his holding in Telecinco. The court cases are unlikely to damage Berlusconi's political standing. He is still popular on the centre right. The Italian press have paid scant attention in the past while Berlusconi has always claimed the charges are the work of "communist magistrates", who he accuses of trying to ruin his political career. Since he came to power he has been in court seven times on corruption allegations. He has been found guilty on four occasions - but has always been cleared on appeal. (BBC NEWS)