Silvio Berlusconi Wins Appeal in Underage Prostitution Trial

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Silvio Berlusconi

UPDATED: The 77-year-old media tycoon and former Italian prime minister was cleared of the charge of paying cabaret dancer "Ruby Heartstealer" for sex when she was 17.

ROME -- The conviction of three-time Italian prime minister and billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi in the famed "Rubygate" case was overturned Friday by a Milan court.

Berlusconi, 77, had been convicted of paying an underage girl for sex in 2010 and then abusing his power as prime minister to get her off on a minor theft charge. The girl, former cabaret dancer Karima el-Mahroug, who was 17 years old at the time, is best known by her stage name "Ruby Heartstealer."

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Friday's ruling is a significant victory for Berlusconi, but it is in no way an end to his legal woes. He is already serving a year of community service after a conviction of tax evasion and false accounting and he still has open cases against him for bribing a public official and conducting illegal wiretaps.

Berlusconi has denied wrongdoing in all the cases, and el-Mahroug corroborated Berlusconi's innocence claims in the case she was involved in, saying the two never had sex and that the large sums of money Berlusconi gave her were out of "friendship."

Berlusconi had been sentenced to seven years behind bars and a lifetime ban from public office in the underage prostitution case. Prosecutors are expected to appeal the verdict to the country's Supreme Court, where a verdict would not come before next year.

"The verdict passes beyond even our rosiest expectations," Franco Coppi, one of Berlusconi's attorneys, said after the ruling was announced.

Berlusconi is the founder of Mediaset, one of Europe's largest diversified media companies. Mediaset owns three national television networks in Italy and one in Spain, plus the Medusa film production and distribution house, and several print media.

Mediaset, which recorded its first-ever full-year loss in 2012 before turning a small profit last year, has been a strong performer in the Italian Stock Exchange in Milan so far this year as it works to increase ad revenue in a slow-growing economy.

But even as Mediaset's fortunes rise, the political fortunes of the company's founder have ebbed. Berlusconi's Forza Italia party is now the third-largest party in Italy's parliament after supporter defections to popular Prime Minister Matteo Renzi or comedian-turned-activist Beppe Grillo. Even Pier Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon's son, said he supported Renzi's reform-minded agenda.

Twitter: @EricJLyman