(see related) ß Rome, July 9 - Politicians who belong to ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party were planning to meet Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the latest twist in their leader's legal tangles. Members of the Lower House were scheduled to meet later Tuesday while Senators were planning to meet late Wednesday with Berlusconi attending both sessions. The meetings were announced shortly after Italy's Court of Cassation set July 30 as the starting date for the final appeals trial regarding Berlusconi's conviction on tax-dodging through the manipulation of film rights for Mediaset, a broadcasting company that is part of his family's media empire. The fact the appeal will be held so soon outraged Berlusconi's lawyers and members of the PdL, who complain that the judiciary is persecuting Berlusconi. "I have never seen a hearing scheduled with this speed. I am shocked, surprised and saddened, because in this way defence rights are compromised," said Berlusconi's lawyer, Franco Coppi, commenting on the Cassation Court trial scheduling. Last month the Constitutional Court - Italy's middle court - upheld a lower court ruling sentencing Berlusconi to four years in prison and banning him from public office for five years. The sentence will not be enforced unless upheld by the Supreme Court of Cassation. The overall court case has serious political implications. There are fears that if the Cassation Court upholds Berlusconi's sentence, members of the center-right leader's PdL party could act to upset the fragile left-right coalition government, headed by Premier Enrico Letta of the center-left Democratic Party (PD). Senior PdL officials have said the party's lawmakers will quit en masse if the fraud conviction is upheld.
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di Sebastiano Caspanello