Rome

Berlusconi tax-fraud conviction upheld, becomes final

Ban of holding public office sent back to appeals level

Berlusconi tax-fraud conviction upheld, becomes final

Rome, August 1 - Italy's supreme Court of Cassation upheld a tax-fraud conviction against ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi Thursday, making a four-year prison sentence definitive. It is the first time Berlusconi has received a definitive conviction after over two dozen criminal cases since the media magnate embarked on a political career two decades ago. Three years of the sentence are not effective because of a 2006 amnesty. As Berlusconi is over 70, he will probably not have to serve the remaining year in prison, but will be given social work or house arrest as punishment The court suspended a five-year ban on Berlusconi holding public office, sending this part of the punishment back to the Milan appeals court for review. State prosecutors requested the ban be reduced to three years earlier this week. There were fears the ruling would have consequences for Premier Enrico Letta's fragile left-right government, which needs the support of Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) party to survive. But Berlusconi has said several times that his legal problems and the government are separate issues and a senior PdL member said the party would keep backing the government after the ruling. "We were expecting a different result but as we are at the service of the country, we'll continue to support the government," Francesco Nitto Palma, the president of the Senate justice commission, said after leaving Berlusconi's Rome residence following the announcement of the ruling. Some PdL lawmakers had threatened the party would pull its backing and sink the government if the sentence was not overturned, saying their leader is the victim of persecution by left-wing magistrates targeting him for political reasons. There have also been threats that they would quit en masse and that eventual protests would include road blocks on motorways. Letta called for cool heads. "Now it's necessary for a climate of serenity, even in the legitimate debate within the political parties, and an institutional approach that makes the interest of Italy prevail," Letta said. The decision was announced after the five Cassation judges huddled for consultations for over six hours over the case. The three-time Italian premier has been found guilty of masterminding a system of inflated film-rights purchases at his Mediaset media empire and the use of offshore companies to create slush funds. This enabled Mediaset to dodge taxes on around seven million euros in 2002 and 2003. Berlusconi's defence was that he had nothing to do with these dealings or authorising them as he was too occupied with political matters. He was premier at the time. Berlusconi's defence lawyers said Thursday they are considering taking his four-year jail term for tax fraud to the European level. "The sentence can only cause dismay," said the lawyers, Franco Coppi, Niccolo' Ghedini and Piero Longo. "There were very solid reasons and legal arguments for a full acquittal. "We will assess and take every initiative necessary, including in European seats, so that this unjust sentence is radically reformed". As the ban on holding public office has been sent to review, Berlusconi will not be forced to step down as Senator or quit the helm of the PdL immediately. There is speculation that Berlusconi may now have his oldest daughter, Marina, the chairwoman of the Fininvest family holding company, installed as PdL leader, although she is reportedly not keen on this. Berlusconi also has more legal headaches on the horizon. He is appealing against a seven-year sentence and a life ban from office for paying an underage prostitute nicknamed Ruby for sex and a one-year term for involvement in the publication of a wiretap that hurt a political rival in separate cases. He may also face trial for allegedly bribing a Senator to change sides to contribute to the fall of a previous centre-left government.

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