MILAN - An Italian court threw out bribery charges against former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday under the statute of limitations, bringing the five-year trial to an end.

Prosecutors had called for a five-year prison term for Berlusconi, who was accused of having paid off his former British tax lawyer David Mills to provide false testimony in his favour in two trials in the 1990s.

Judge Francesca Vitale spent three hours considering the verdict after defence lawyers presented their final arguments, but took less than a minute to tell a packed court room that she ruled that the case had run out of time allowed by law.

Prosecutor Fabio de Pasquale looked downcast and told waiting hordes of journalists: “I just want to get out of here.”

Berlusconi’s lawyers refused to comment. The media magnate, who has always protested his innocence, was not in court. He had left Rome for Milan Saturday morning, but had come to see his football team AC Milan play Juventus.

Despite his being convicted several times of corruption and false accounting in the past, all cases against Berlusconi have either been overturned or discarded when they expire after years of moving laboriously through Italy’s justice system.

Berlusconi had been accused of paying his offshore tax expert $600,000 (445,000 euros). Mills was tried in absentia, convicted in February 2009 and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

The verdict was later upheld but the case against Mills finally expired in 2010, although judges stressed that they believed he was guilty of an act of “very serious” corruption.

Berlusconi did everything to put off a verdict against him in the Mills case, complaining that the judges had refused to listen to all the defence witnesses and were conspiring against him.

“The Mills trial is just one of numerous invented proceedings against me. In total, more than 100 legal procedures, over 900 prosecutors have busied themselves with me and with my company,” Berlusconi said ahead of the hearing.

“Two thousand six hundred hearings in 14 years, more than 400 million euros in fees for lawyers and consultants — these are impressive records not just on a global level but on a universal level, on a solar system level,” he said.

Berlusconi in particular criticised the prosecution’s “incredible thesis” that the crime was committed not when the money was allegedly given to the lawyer but when the lawyer began spending it two years later.

The prosecution had claimed the trial still had a few months left.

Although a conviction could have been a blow to Berlusconi’s prestige, the colourful ex-premier, 75, was never likely to go to jail because sentencing guidelines in Italy are very lenient for over-70s.

Berlusconi has been struggling with the law ever since entering political life in 1993 with his Forza Italia (“Go Italy”) party. His legal woes are far from over with the Mills verdict: he is also currently on trial for sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of power, for tax fraud and for violating official secrets.