Milan, October 26 - Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was found guilty Friday of tax fraud in the trading of film rights for TV broadcasts by his Mediaset media empire. Berlusconi, who said this week he would not run for premier in April, was sentenced to four years and banned from public office for five. "This is an impossible verdict," said Berlusconi. "I thought I would be acquitted". Due to a 2006 amnesty law, he will not have to serve three of the four years of his jail sentence if the ruling is upheld on appeal. Berlusconi had maintained throughout the trial that he was not involved in any of the suspicious film-rights trades as he was busy working in politics. But judges ruled Friday that he indeed "remained at the top of the management" and "there was no other person" capable of managing the fraudulent deals. Mediaset President Fedele Confalonieri was acquitted. The trial, which featured 11 defendants in all, was one of three involving the media magnate, including one in which he is accused of having sex with an underage alleged prostitute and using his position as premier to allegedly try to hush it up. Berlusconi has been tried some 30 times but very rarely convicted. The few convictions were either overturned on appeal or timed out, sometimes because of law changes made by his governments. The ex-premier, replaced by technocrat Mario Monti almost a year ago, has fiercely argued he is the victim of a witch hunt by a group of allegedly left-leaning magistrates. Exiting the courthouse, he told reporters he was a target of "judicial persecution". "The country is ceasing to be a democracy," he added. "Something has to change". Political commentators have speculated that Berlusconi's announcement Wednesday not to run in April elections was related to fears of a guilty verdict, which the ex-premier denied. "For me there is no connection," he said. Angelino Alfano, the secretary of Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) party described the conviction as "unexpected" and "incomprehensible". "It is the umpteenth demonstration that there is a campaign of judicial attacks on Silvio Berlusconi," said Alfano, a former justice minister and favourite to be the PdL's candidate in elections next spring. "We are certain that the next levels of justice will show we are right and we hope that these judgements will arrive quickly". Party members said the ruling was an attempt to harm his political future. "This isn't a sentence, it's an attempt at political homicide," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, House whip for the PdL. "Unfortunately we have long known this was an act of using the justice system as a political tool". Stock in Mediaset dropped sharply on the Milan bourse following news of the conviction. Shares registered a loss of 3.11%, dipping to 1.33 euros, at the sounding of the closing bell.
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di Angelo Biscardi