ROME -- Italy's high court Thursday upheld a conviction of tax fraud and a four-year prison sentence for former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the first time that the media mogul and three-time premier has received a definitive conviction and sentence in his 20-year political career.
But the court declined to rule on a five-year ban on political office that Berlusconi had been handed by a lower appeals court, sending the matter back to the lower court for reconsideration.
And the former premier, who had been free pending the appeal of his conviction, is still unlikely to see the inside of a jail cell. The sentence will have three years cut off it because of a 2006 amnesty law, meaning that the 76-year-old Berlusconi will probably face at most a year of house arrest because of his age.
Still, it was his most stinging judicial defeat after years of court battles over charges ranging from fraudulent accounting to paying a minor for sex. In most of those cases, he benefited from acquittals or the expiration of the statute of limitations.
Beppe Grillo, the leader of the populist Five-Star movement, likened the ruling to the "fall of the Berlin wall in 1989....Today, this wall, for a long time an optical illusion, kept alive by the special effects of newspapers and television, has fallen," Grillo wrote on his blog.
The highly anticipated court ruling came less than two months after Berlusconi was found guilty of paying a teenage girl for sex and then using his position as prime minister to try to cover it up. Two weeks ago, three of Berlusconi's associates were convicted of procuring prostitutes for the infamous "bunga bunga" parties he held at his Milan mansion.
The flamboyant politician maintains his innocence and insists that the cases against him are the work of leftists on a political vendetta.
The verdict comes as Italy's shaky coalition government, which depends in large part on Berlusconi's support, tries to hold together while tackling Italy's deep-seated economic problems. The country is mired in recession, and public debt tops $2.5 trillion.