Silvio Berlusconi (file image) Silvio Berlusconi says the charges against him are politically motivated

Judges have thrown out a bribery case against former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, because it expired under the statute of limitations.

Mr Berlusconi was accused of paying his former British tax lawyer, David Mills, to lie in court to protect his interests.

The case dates back to the 1990s.

Mr Berlusconi, who denies wrongdoing, says this and other court cases against him are all part of a politically-motivated smear campaign.

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image of Alan Johnston Alan Johnston BBC News, Rome

So Mr Berlusconi now has one less court case to worry about. But he remains engaged in three others, and waging his legal battles seems to have absorbed quite a bit of his energy since he resigned as prime minister.

And he has in general been getting used to playing a very much quieter role than he once enjoyed.

For one thing, the country is now in the hands of Mario Monti’s government of unelected technocrats. And all of Italy’s professional politicians are taking something of a backseat. But Mr Berlusconi has also talked of actually wanting to step more into the background. He says it is time to hand his party’s leadership on to a younger generation.

But many Italians will feel that his current comparative quiescence is rather out of character. They will expect to hear more from him when the technocrat government’s time expires and the full-blooded political fray begins again in earnest.

He is on trial separately on charges of tax fraud and sex with an under-age prostitute.

The prosecution alleged Mr Mills was given $600,000 (£382,000) to lie in court about Mr Berlusconi’s business interests.

Mr Mills – who was not on trial – denies that any such payment was made.

In December he told a court he was “deeply ashamed” for falsely claiming that Mr Berlusconi had given him $600,000.

Mr Mills said the money had actually come from an associate he had not wanted to admit dealing with.

Of the other three cases Mr Berlusconi still faces, potentially the most damaging for the former Italian leader involves Moroccan nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, also known as Ruby.

Prosecutors allege Ms Mahroug attended several parties at Mr Berlusconi’s residence last year and was paid for sex while she was still 17, an offence according to Italian law. Both she and the prime minister deny having sex. She says she did receive 7,000 euros (£5,900), but it was as a gift after a party.