Tessa Jowell's husband and Berlusconi to stand trial for fraud

Last updated at 17:25 07 July 2006

A judge today ordered Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to stand trial over alleged fraud at his family's broadcaster Mediaset.

Preliminary hearings began in October after a four year investigation by Milan magistrates into claims of embezzlement, false accounting, tax fraud and money laundering in television rights deals between 1994 and 1999.

Berlusconi has denied any wrongdoing.

The judge also ordered that 13 other people, including British lawyer David Mills, the husband of a British government minister, should also be tried over the alleged fraud at Mediaset, judicial and legal sources said.

"It was a predictable decision, considering the previous hearings in Milan," said Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini.

"They haven't allowed crucial witnesses for the defence to be heard," he added.

The sources said the trial would start on November 21.

Prosecutors suspect a U.S. firm sold television and cinema rights to two offshore firms controlled by a Berlusconi family holding, Fininvest.

The offshore firms then allegedly inflated the prices and sold them to Mediaset, controlled by Fininvest, to avoid Italian taxes and create a slush fund.

In a related case, Milan prosecutors have accused Berlusconi of paying Mills, the estranged husband of British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, a kickback of $600,000 for not revealing details of his media empire when Mills testified in two court cases. Mills has also denied wrongdoing.

The most serious alleged crime in the main Mediaset case is money laundering, which carries a possible sentence of four to 12 years. For Berlusconi, the most serious accusation is tax fraud, which carries a sentence of up to six years.

Shares in Mediaset fell 1.7 percent to 8.9 euros at 1527 GMT.

Berlusconi, who lost elections against centre-left rival Romano Prodi in April, has been tried on at least seven occasions for graft. He was found guilty four times, but verdicts have been overturned on appeal or the statute of limitations has applied and he no longer had to face trial.

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