Italy’s supreme court has upheld Silvio Berlusconi’s four-year jail sentence for tax evasion, a first definitive conviction for the media mogul and three-times prime minister, which may bring his long and flamboyant political career to an end.
Judges took seven hours to confirm the sentence yesterday, which was first handed down by a Milan court in October and confirmed on appeal in May.
Berlusconi will not go to jail thanks to a 2006 amnesty law which trimmed three years off sentences for crimes committed before that date.
Berlusconi allegedly inflated spending on TV rights at his TV company in 2002 and 2003 before channelling the surplus back to avoid taxes.
With one year due to be served, he is likely to be put on house arrest and made to carry out community service, hampering his chances to continue an active political life.
Judges also declined to confirm the Milan court’s decision to ban Berlusconi from political office for five years, deciding to send the decision back to a lower appeal court for recalculation.
But the ramifications for Italy are enormous. Berlusconi has faced 17 major trials in the past 20 years, but has hitherto dodged a definitive conviction thanks to acquittals and by using his time in government to change laws to escape prosecution, as well as benefiting from the statute of limitations timing out trials.
The conviction, which was awaited by Rome’s political establishment with bated breath, could now create frictions in Italy’s coalition government – which was formed with members of Berlusconi’s party, as well as his sworn opponents from the centre left – after February elections produced no clear result.
Berlusconi backers have said they do not intend to walk out of the cabinet, prompting fresh elections, but rising tensions in the cabinet could hurt the bid by prime minister Enrico Letta to salvage Italy’s stuttering economy, creating new instability at the heart of Europe as it tries to recover from a crippling downturn.
The tax evasion trial, which focused on years when Berlusconi was prime minister, goes to the heart of the accusation of conflicts of interest which has dogged the career of the man who controls three TV channels, a media and banking empire and is among Italy’s richest men.
In his summing up before the supreme court on Tuesday, prosecutor Antonio Mura claimed that despite running the Italian government at the time, Berlusconi had also been “the creator of the mechanism of fiscal fraud.”
The conflict of interest accusation has failed to deter Berlusconi voters in a country where business deals are often riddled with opaque agreements.
Berlusconi’s constant depiction of judges as left wing extremists trying to oust him from politics has also played well in a country where tax evasion is rife and courts are often viewed as meddlers.
As the wait for the verdict, which was expected on Tuesday, lengthened, Berlusconi was joined by his fiancé Francesca Pasquale and her poodle Dudu, as well as his daughter Marina, who has been tipped to inherit his political mantle.
Among the members of the public outside the supreme court yesterday was anti-Berlusconi campaigner Gianfranco Mascia, who had a bottle of spumante in his racksack. “I have waited for this moment for 20 years,” he said.
Berlusconi’s legal woes are far from over. He is appealing against his seven-year conviction, as well as a life ban from politics, for abuse of office and paying an underage prostitute, Karima El Mahroug, who attended his notorious Bunga Bunga parties at his Milan villa.
He has also been accused of bribing a former senator, Sergio De Gregorio, to desert the centre left government led by Romano Prodi between 2006 and 2008 and join his Freedom People party. De Gregorio has already asked to plea bargain, claiming he accepted a €3 million (£2.6m) cash bribe.