An Italian court has sentenced a close political ally of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to nine years in prison for working with the mafia.

Marcello Dell'Utri, a senator and founding member of Mr. Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, had been accused of acting as a link between organized crime and Italy's business and political elite.

Mr. Berlusconi escaped conviction Friday in a major corruption trial after a court said time had run out to sentence the prime minister under the nation's statute of limitations laws.

Prosecutors had sought an eight-year sentence for Mr. Berlusconi over charges he bribed judges in 1985 to block the sale of a state-owned food company S.M.E. to a rival firm.

Mr. Berlusconi said the charges were politically motivated.

Some information for this report provided by AFP and Reuters.