Italian court upholds Berlusconi tax fraud sentence
An Italian court on Wednesday upheld a tax fraud conviction for former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, confirming his sentence of one year in prison and a five-year ban from public office.
“The court confirms the sentence against Silvio Berlusconi,” judge Alessandra Galli said in the Milan courtroom, according to a live audio feed broadcast by news channel Sky TG 24.
Berlusconi is now expected to appeal the ruling in Italy’s highest court, which would suspend the punishment pending a final ruling in the case which revolves around his Mediaset business empire.
The initial trial began seven years ago, highlighting delays in Italy’s justice system.
Legal experts were quoted in Italian media saying the final ruling could come at the end of the year.
“We knew it would go like this,” Berlusconi’s defence lawyer Niccolo Ghedini told reporters.
“I do not think there is a connection between this verdict and political stability,” said Ghedini, who is also a member of parliament from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party.
Berlusconi’s party won nearly a third of the vote in a general election in February and is now an influential member of a newly formed grand coalition led by leftist moderate Enrico Letta.
The cabinet is already riven with tensions and political analysts warn Berlusconi could bring down the government within months as opinion polls indicate that he would win fresh elections.
Many analysts had dismissed Berlusconi as a political force just a few months ago but he staged an impressive comeback for the elections after almost a year out of the public eye.
Berlusconi’s former education minister Mariastella Gelmini said the ruling was “political”.
The ruling “is well timed to try and discredit the leader of Italy’s main centre-right party just when the (leftist) Democratic Party is showing all its weakness,” she said.
Renato Schifani, a senator from Berlusconi’s party, said the sentence was part of the “judicial persecution” against the veteran politician.
But the anti-establishment Five Star Movement party said it showed the need to implement a law on convicted politicians that would ban Berlusconi from holding public office.
The appeal verdict was the latest twist in a 20-year legal saga that began when the flamboyant billionaire first burst onto the political scene.
Berlusconi rarely if ever shows up at trials and is not obliged to under Italian law, although he has made occasional declarations to the court without cross-examination as the system allows.
The case revolves around prices of film distribution rights bought by Mediaset that were artificially inflated in order to avoid taxes.
The court on Wednesday also acquitted Berlusconi’s business associate Fedele Confalonieri, who is the current chairman of Mediaset.
Berlusconi is also a defendant in a trial for having sex with an underage 17-year-old prostitute while he was still prime minister, and then abusing the powers of his office by putting pressure on police to release her from custody.
A verdict in that case is expected imminently.
The 76-year-old Berlusconi was also convicted in March over the publication of police wiretap transcripts in a newspaper he owns, which were leaked in order to discredit a political rival.
He is appealing that conviction.
Prosecutors are also seeking a trial against Berlusconi for allegedly bribing a left-wing senator with 3.0 million euros (US$4.0 million) to encourage him to join his party.
Berlusconi has been found guilty on various business-related charges in the past but all his convictions have either been overturned on appeal or have expired under the statute of limitations.
Supporters say he is unfairly victimised by left-wing judges who are out to get him, but critics say he has used his influence and wealth to dodge the law for many years.
Ghedini said the tax fraud trial should have been moved to another city – a defence request that was turned down by the court – because judges in Milan were unfairly biased against him.
Even if his convictions are upheld throughout the appeals process, Berlusconi is unlikely ever to see the inside of a prison cell as sentencing guidelines for over-70s in Italy are lenient.