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Swiss unblock US$140m after Italy tax fraud acquittals

[GENEVA] Switzerland's attorney general's office said Sunday it had unblocked accounts holding some US$140 million, which were frozen more than a decade ago to assist Italy in a tax fraud probe of the Mediaset broadcaster.

A decision by Milan's top appeals court earlier this month to overturn 18-month prison sentences handed to Mediaset chairman Fedele Confalonieri and its chief Pier Silvio Berlusconi led to the unblocking, Andre Marty, spokesman for the office of the attorney general (OAG), told AFP in an email.

Mr Pier is the son of Italy's legendary former prime minister and Mediaset founder Silvio Berlusconi.

"The legal assistance procedure which began on May 24, 2002... has been concluded," said Mr Marty.

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In March, a lower appeals court hit the executives with jail terms for tax fraud linked to broadcasting rights, but the higher court ruled this had not been proven.

The case revolves around prices for film distribution rights bought by Mediaset that were allegedly artificially inflated in order to pay lower taxes, with the proceeds used to create slush funds in foreign bank accounts.

Swiss judicial authorities froze the accounts in 2005, the ATS news agency reported.

"On the basis of the recent acquittals in Italy, OAG released the funds blocked by law last Friday, September 21," Mr Marty said.

Once the banks in question go through the procedure to unblock the accounts "the account-holders will have the possibility to access the funds, amounting to approximately $140 million," he said.