A tax fraud sentence against Silvio Berlusconi was
upheld by Italy's highest court on Thursday, the first time that a
conviction against the billionaire media tycoon and former three-time
prime minister will be applied.
More than 30 cases against Berlusconi on a variety of charges have been filed against him during his political career, but have either expired due to statutes of limitations or because of changes in the law.
In this case, the 76-year-old was sentenced in October to four years in prison, with three years removed under an old amnesty law, and a five-year ban on holding public office for fraudulent offshore accounting by his family's media firm, Mediaset.
After three days of hearings, the prison sentence was upheld by the Court of Cassation. However, the ban on public office would have to be renegotiated with the lower court, it ruled.
Berlusconi's lawyers on Wednesday demanded a full acquittal at the Court of Cassation in Rome, saying their client had committed no crime.
In Italy, verdicts can be appealed twice before they are enforced. Berlusconi's conviction was upheld on first appeal in May.
While the confirmation of the conviction dealt a severe blow to Berlusconi, it also has the potential to unravel the crisis-ridden country's fragile government.
Members of his People of Freedom party, a key partner in a grand coalition with the Democratic Party of Prime Minister Enrico Letta, had threatened to quit the government if Berlusconi were banned from holding public office and forced to give up his Senate seat.
In a move cautiously welcomed by Berlusconi's centre-right political alliance, prosecutor Antonello Mura on Tuesday called for the court to confirm Berlusconi's conviction, but to reduce the ban on holding office to three years.
Berlusconi, who was not in court for the hearings, has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, saying that his duties as prime minister at the time would have kept him from knowing anything about it.
The charge against Berlusconi and seven other convicted is that Mediaset - the politician's media firm - exaggerated its losses to minimize its tax bill by using a fraudulent accounting scheme for TV rights bought from the United States via offshore companies for hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1990s.
Observers say Berlusconi, a senator, is more worried about a potential ban than a prison sentence. He would be unlikely to face jail time because of lenient detention rules for people over 70, and could be placed under house arrest or given community service.
In a separate case, Berlusconi was convicted in June of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of office and sentenced to seven years in prison and a lifetime ban on holding office. He is expected to appeal.
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