Silvio Berlusconi

Berlusconi court ruling 'like fall of Berlin Wall'

Coalition in the balance after top court upholds Berlusconi's conviction for tax fraud, leaving him enraged and Italians shrugging their shoulders

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 2:17am

A supreme court ruling upholding a tax fraud conviction against former centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi has left the fate of Italy's fragile ruling coalition in the balance, although his supporters said the government would not be brought down.

Just three months after centre-left prime minister Enrico Letta took office at the head of an uneasy coalition with Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PdL), Italy, the euro zone's third largest economy, is again mired in uncertainty.

The 76-year-old billionaire reacted angrily to the decision by the supreme court to reject a final appeal against his conviction, protesting his innocence and accusing magistrates of persecuting him since his entry into politics 20 years ago.

The ruling, confirming a jail sentence for tax fraud involving inflated invoices at his Mediaset broadcasting empire, was the first definitive sentence he had received after dozens of previous trials on charges ranging from tax to sex offences.

"No one can understand the real violence which has been directed against me," he said in a video message broadcast on Italian television after the verdict. "A genuine campaign of aggression that has no equal."

No one can understand the real violence which has been directed against me. A genuine campaign of aggression that has no equal
Silvio Berlusconi

Berlusconi is unlikely to have to serve any time in jail because of his age. And the supreme court ordered part of the original sentence - imposing a ban on holding political office - to be reviewed. But the ruling has dealt an unprecedented blow to the man who has dominated Italian politics for two decades.

"His conviction is like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989," crowed Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and a ferocious critic of Berlusconi.

For all the drama, financial markets largely shrugged off the news, suggesting that investors expect the government to muddle through for now. Shares in Berlusconi's Mediaset fell 4 per cent in volatile early trade.

Berlusconi said he would continue his political activities under the "Forza Italia" (Go Italy!) name of his first party and press for a reform of the justice system, but he made no direct reference to the future of the coalition with Letta.

Senior allies also reacted with bitterness, but said the ruling would not bring down the coalition between Letta's centre-left Democratic Party and Berlusconi's People of Freedom.

A greater threat to the government could come from Letta's own faction-ridden centre-left Democratic Party (PD), many of whose members are already unhappy with ruling in coalition with Berlusconi's party and could now rebel.

As millions of Italians head off for their sacrosanct August summer holidays and parliament prepares to go into recess, there is little expectation of an immediate government crisis that could trigger snap elections.

But what might come over the next few months remains completely uncertain, with Letta struggling to contain increasing unhappiness in his PD.

President Giorgio Napolitano, the man who would have to decide whether to call new elections if the ruling coalition fell apart, urged calm and said the country needed "serenity and cohesion".

But the ruling created another obstacle for Letta as he struggles to lead Italy out of its longest postwar recession, reform its stagnant economy and cut its mountainous public debt. More challenges may lie ahead.

As well as the tax fraud case, Berlusconi is also fighting a separate conviction for paying for sex with a minor, in the notorious "bunga bunga" prostitution case that tarnished his final months in office in 2011.

A tangle of court cases for Berlusconi

The tax fraud conviction upheld against Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday is just one of the criminal cases or investigations involving the former Italian premier.

Corruption: In February this year, Berlusconi was put under investigation for corruption and illegal financing of political parties by the public prosecutor of Naples. He is accused of bribing Senator Sergio De Gregorio with three million euros (HK$30.8 million) to get him to switch parties and join Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party in 2006.

Child prostitution: Berlusconi was accused of an illegal sexual relationship with Karima El Mahroug, known as "Ruby Heartstealer". She was 17 years old at the time of the relationship with Berlusconi. In June, Berlusconi was convicted of using a child prostitute and sentenced to seven years pending the filing of an appeal.

Extortion: Berlusconi was also convicted of concussione, or malfeasance by a public official that can be equated to extortion, in the Ruby case for having put pressure on police in Milan to secure Mahroug's release from jail. The conviction contributed to his seven-year sentence in the case.

The Unipol case: In March a Milan judge sentenced Berlusconi to a one-year jail term for conspiring to reveal classified police files about a banking investigation to a newspaper owned by his family. The files concerned Italian insurance company Unipol's attempted bid to buy the bank Banca Nazionale del Lavoro in 2005.