Italian prosecutors have been thwarted in an attempt to have crucial evidence relating to the trial of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell’s estranged husband David Mills heard in public.
Advocates for the two men told a London court that there would be a “feeding frenzy” and a “media circus” unless evidence relating to the fraud case was held in private.
Italian judges, who travelled to London to attend today’s session were also excluded by the court, but might have the opportunity to hear the evidence at a later date.
The City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court was today hearing from witnesses relating to charges of fraud against Mills and Berlusconi.
The pair are currently being tried by an Italian court on charges of false accounting, embezzlement and tax fraud, in the purchase by the former Italian premier’s Mediaset empire of TV rights for US movies.
Mills is alleged to have set up off-shore firms that helped Berlusconi’s company avoid tax relating to tax liability on the TV rights.
During a four-day session, which opened today, evidence is due to be taken from eight witnesses including tax advisors, accountants and colleagues of Mills.
But at the start of the hearing lawyers for Berlusconi and Mills argued that it should be in private, with the press and public excluded, on the grounds that having a public hearing would serve no purpose.
They also argued that some of the witnesses who would be heard intend to invoke protection under Italian law against being compelled to give evidence.
In Italy, client confidentiality is wider reaching than in the UK, encompassing advisors on financial and tax issues.
Hugo Keith, representing Mills, said: “Given the press publicity and the notoriety of this case, given the leaks, given the absence of any good reason why it should be held in public, it would merely generate further publicity and a feeding frenzy.”
Khawar Qureshi QC, on behalf of Italian prosecutors, said: “A media circus and embarrassment has never been a reason for sessions to be held in private.”
But senior district judge Tim Workman said that it would be in the interest of justice for some of the evidence to be taken in private.
Berlusconi and Mills both deny the charges.
Italian prosecutors claim that Mr Berlusconi used two offshore companies controlled by the holding firm Fininvest to buy the rights for US movies.
The company was then sold on at an inflated price to Mediaset as part of a tax scam, they claim.
It is further alleged that Mr Mills received more than £300,000 from Mr Berlusconi in exchange for giving false testimony in two trials against the media mogul.
In court today evidence was taken from Mr Mills’ former partner at law firm MacKenzie Mills, Jeremy Scott, but during the session Mr Scott repeatedly invoked Article 200 under Italian privilege law, meaning that much of the evidence could not be given in open court.
Qureshi, on behalf of Italian prosecutors, said that it was his understanding that whether at the behest of Mills or Berlusconi each witness would in essence invoke Article 200.
“The consequence of that for the prosecutors is going to be disruption,” he said.