Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, sentenced to perform community service after a tax fraud conviction, began working with Alzheimer's patients Friday.
Flanked by security guards, Berlusconi smiled and waved at dozens of waiting journalists, saying the day “went well,” and left in a limousine from the Fondazione Sacra Famiglia center near Milan following the four-hour session with patients.
Berlusconi, 77, was sentenced to four years in prison last year for tax dodging at his media empire; the sentence was cut to one year due to an amnesty law. Considered too old to go to prison, the three-time prime minister and millionaire was given a year of community service, which will be reduced to 10 months if he obeys curfew rules.
An official at the center, Michele Restelli, told Italian daily La Repubblica that Berlusconi’s introduction to patients would be “gradual”, but once he got to know them during his once-weekly sessions he could help at meals, “which are tricky because sometimes you have to 'remind' the patient that they are eating.”
Berlusconi’s community service stint comes as he stands trial for bribing a senator and prepares to appeal a seven-year sentence for paying an underage prostitute for sex. He claims he is innocent of all charges.
The community service assignment seems a humbling blow to the image of a man who built his political appeal on his eternal energy and youthfulness -- helped by hair grafts and face lifts.
Banned from taking political office for two years as part of his tax fraud sentence, Berlusconi is nevertheless campaigning for his Forza Italia party in a May 25 election.The party, though, is struggling to reach 20% in polls, lagging behind the Five Star party led by comic Beppe Grillo and the Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Berlusconi was again on the defensive this week after Claudio Scajola, a former government minister considered close to him, was arrested on suspicion of helping a former Forza Italia politician flee the country following his sentencing for cooperating with the mafia.
Berlusconi claims that Italy’s magistrates have hounded him with trumped-up charges since he entered politics in 1994, but he has been forced to rein in his diatribes recently or risk seeing judges revoke his community service sentence and switch it to house arrest.
Paolo Pigni, the director of the nursing home, has also forbidden Berlusconi from using his community service as an electioneering platform.
Nevertheless, Berlusconi has hinted at “surprises” during his visits to the center, claiming that he had been studying the latest treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, in order to “give nurses a way to be able to do more.”
Volunteers at the center have reported staffers asking to be transferred to the Alzheimer's section and relatives of patients timing visits to get a glimpse of Berlusconi. But outside the facility on Friday, Berlusconi received an angry reception from a protester who repeatedly called for him to be sent directly to San Vittore jail in Milan.
Kington is a special correspondent.