Italy's highest criminal court yesterday upheld the acquittal of former seven-time premier Giulio Andreotti on charges of aiding the Mafia the final judgment in a case that started about a decade ago and shocked the nation.

The ruling by the Court of Cassation was made after less than two hours of deliberations.

Andreotti, who was not in court, has always maintained his innocence, saying he was framed by mobsters seeking revenge for his governments' crackdowns on organised crime.

He had already been acquitted twice, in 1999 and in 2003.

Yesterday's ruling upheld the 2003 verdict, in which the appellate judges said that while they believed Andreotti had friendly ties with mobsters decades ago, they found no evidence that he had associated with the Mafia after 1980.

They said the statute of limitations had run out on any criminal association before 1980.

Seeking to fully clear his name, the 85-year-old Andreotti had appealed for a ruling of full innocence. The court stopped just short of that, upholding the previous ruling.

Still, Andreotti's lawyers expressed satisfaction that the case against the politician was finally closed.

"It went very well, for us the important thing was that these 11 years of proceedings ended here," said a defence lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno. "And it ended with an acquittal."

Andreotti was notified that he was under investigation for alleged ties to the Mafia in 1993.

Andreotti, a Christian Democrat, is a senator-for-life. Aside from serving as premier for seven times, he has held a number of government posts. He helped write Italy's postwar constitution and has sat in parliament continuously since 1948.

The first trial, which was held in Palermo and lasted four years, was widely viewed as putting on trial the Christian Democrat-dominated political system that ran Italy for four decades after World War II. The party was toppled by corruption scandals in the early 1990s.

The prosecutors contended that Andreotti and his fellow party members did favours for the Mafia in Sicily, such as promising that lenient judges would handle mobsters' trials, in exchange for votes.