MILAN, July 18 (Xinhua) -- A Milan appeal court on Friday acquitted former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from charges of paying sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power to cover it up.
The judges overturned the first-level verdict, which last year had sentenced Berlusconi to seven years in jail at the end of a two-year-long trial composed of 50 hearings. There is one more level of appeal before the sentence would become final.
Berlusconi was accused of paying for sex with an underage Moroccan former dancer, Karima El Mahroug, better known as "Ruby Heartstealer," when she was 17 and phoning to a police station when he was prime minister in May 2010 after she was detained on an unrelated theft accusation.
The media entrepreneur allegedly told police that El Mahroug was a niece of Egypt's then president Hosni Mubarak, which was not true, and pressured officials to release her to avoid diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
Both Berlusconi and El Mahroug denied ever having sex. Dozens of showgirls, however, have described sex parties that young women were paid to attend at the three-time premier's houses.
As reporters from around the world gathered at the entrance to the Milan courthouse on Friday, Berlusconi learnt about the court's decision at a facility for sick elderly people near the business city, where he is doing one year of community service to serve a separate tax-fraud conviction. Being 77, he is too old to go to jail, according to standard Italian legal practice.
The media entrepreneur, who has always denied any wrongdoing and insisted to be the victim of left-wing prosecutors since he entered politics in 1994, has faced multiple fraud and corruption trials. He resigned in November 2011 in disgrace sparked by the Ruby case and other scandals.
The tax-fraud verdict, which was his first final guilty conviction in around 20 years of fighting judicial cases, has led to Berlusconi being ejected from parliament and banned from holding public offices for two years.
However, he is still leading his center-right opposition party, Forza Italia (FI), from outside parliament. The current center-left government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is striving to introduce important structural measures to re-launch recession-plagued Italy, some of which depend on the FI votes.