Silvio Berlusconi

Berlusconi gets four years' jail for tax fraud

Former Italian premier is handed a four-year prison term for fraud - which was then cut to one year - but the tycoon is expected to appeal

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2012, 4:29am

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in jail yesterday for tax fraud in connection with the purchase of broadcasting rights by his Mediaset television company.

But the court immediately cut the sentence to one year under an amnesty law approved by the then centre-left government in 2006 to reduce the overcrowding of Italian prisons.

The 76-year-old billionaire, who was convicted three times during the 1990s in the first degree before being cleared by higher courts, has the right to appeal the ruling two more times before the sentence becomes definitive. He will not be jailed unless he loses the final appeal.

Berlusconi condemned what he called "intolerable judicial harassment".

"It is a political, incredible and intolerable judgment," he said on one of his TV stations, Italia 1. "It is without any doubt a political verdict just as all the cases invented against me are political."

The ruling comes two days after Berlusconi confirmed he would not run in next year's elections as the leader of his People of Freedom (PDL) party, ending almost 19 years as the dominant politician of the centre-right.

Milan judge Edoardo d'Avossa told a packed court that between 2000 and 2003, there had been "a very significant amount of tax evasion" and "an incredible mechanism of fraud" in place around the buying and selling of broadcast rights.

The court's written ruling said Berlusconi showed a "natural capacity for crime".

Berlusconi lawyers Piero Longo and Niccolo Ghedini said the ruling was "totally divorced from all judicial logic".

Berlusconi, one of Italy's richest men, became prime minister for a second time in 2001 after winning a landslide election victory. Even while he was in office, he remained in effective charge of Mediaset even though he had handed over control of day-to-day operations, the court said.

The four-time prime minister and other Mediaset executives stood accused of inflating the price paid for TV rights via offshore companies controlled by Berlusconi and skimming off part of the money to create illegal slush funds. The probe focused on TV and cinema rights that Berlusconi's holding company Fininvest bought via offshore firms from Hollywood studios.

The court also ordered damages provisionally set at 10 million euros (HK$100 million) to be paid by Berlusconi and his co-defendants to tax authorities.

Berlusconi resigned as prime minister a year ago as Italy faced a Greek-style debt crisis, handing the reins of government to economics professor Mario Monti.

Angelino Alfano, secretary of the PDL, said the ruling proved once again "judicial persecution" of the media magnate, while political rival Antonio Di Pietro, a former magistrate, said "the truth has been exposed".

Should the ruling be confirmed on appeal, Berlusconi would also be forbidden from holding public office for five years, and from being a company executive for three years.

"This is not a sentence, but an attempt at political homicide," Fabrizio Chicchito, the PDL's chief whip in the Chamber of Deputies, said, referring to the ban from holding office.

Now that Berlusconi has said he will pull out of politics, he may be focusing more on his business empire, which includes Mediaset, AC Milan soccer club, and internet bank Mediolanum.

The court acquitted Mediaset chairman and long-term Berlusconi friend Fedele Confalonieri, for whom prosecutors had sought a sentence of three years and four months.

Berlusconi is also still on trial in the separate "Rubygate" case in which he is accused of paying for sex with a teenage dancer when she was under 18 and thus too young to be paid legally as a prostitute. He denies the charges.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse