Rome

Constitutional Court considers Berlusconi fraud case

Ex-premier trying to overturn four-year conviction

Constitutional Court considers Berlusconi fraud case

(By Paul Virgo) Rome, June 19 - Judges for Italy's Constitutional Court gathered on Monday to consider ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's petition for a tax-fraud conviction to be quashed. The case concerns a four-year conviction Berlusconi was handed last year for tax fraud on TV rights bought by his Mediaset media empire. The conviction, which also includes a five-year ban from public office, was upheld by an appeals court last month. Berlusconi's lawyers are trying to have the conviction struck down on the grounds that, since the media mogul was premier at the time of a 2010 hearing, that hearing should never have taken place because he had a "legitimate impediment" that prevented him attending. If the Constitutional Court upholds Berlusconi's petition the case looks destined to be timed out. But if they reject it, Berlusconi will be forced to take the case to the supreme Court of Cassation. If the Cassation also upholds the conviction, it will become effective. Berlusconi is unlikely to actually have to spend time as a 2006 amnesty law means three of the four years of the sentence will not be effective, leaving just one, and terms that are so short are usually suspended in Italy. But the ban of holding public office would kick in and Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) party said Wednesday that all of their lawmakers would resign if this happened. This would cause a crisis for Premier Enrico Letta's left-right coalition government, which relies on the PdL's support in parliament. "The resignations of all PdL MPs (will be the result)," said Deputy Senate Speaker Maurizio Gasparri, a PDL member. "I'm crossing my fingers...because I should be pessimistic. "I hope that (the Constitutional Court) shows good sense and responds to the truth - there was a legitimate impediment". In the several ongoing and previous trials, Berlusconi has always denied wrongdoing, claiming he is the victim of a minority group of allegedly left-wing prosecutors and judges who he says are persecuting him for political reasons. On Monday a Milan court is set to give its verdict in a trial into allegations Berlusconi, 76, paid for sex with an underage prostitute and abused his power to try to cover up the affair. The three-time premier is also appealing a one-year term for involvement in the publication of an illegally obtained wiretap and facing indictment for allegedly buying Senators to topple a centre-left government. There was more bad news for Berlusconi when a lawmaker for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S) said its petition to have him declared ineligible for public office could go to a formal vote at a Senate committee next month. The vote on whether Berlusconi's vast media holdings make him ineligible for public office has been scheduled for July 9, said M5S Senator Mario Giarrusso. However, a motion finalizing the date for the vote must be formally approved next Tuesday, Giarrusso added. M5S leader Beppe Grillo has long advocated a vote in parliament on declaring Berlusconi ineligible to take part in public life. "In any democratic country, Berlusconi would be in prison or would have been removed from any public role while here he tips the scale," Grillo once said. The M5S petition regards application of a 1957 law barring the holder of government licenses, like the ones Berlusconi has for his TV networks, from holding public office. The vote may put Premier Enrico Letta's Democratic Party (PD) in a difficult position as it has always bemoaned conflicts between Berlusconi's business interests and his political role, but it has voted against application of the 1957 ineligibility law in the past. The PD's situation is even more delicate at the moment, with Letta relying on the PdL's support to keep his government afloat.

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