ROME — Italy’s high court on Thursday upheld a conviction of tax fraud and a four-year prison sentence for Silvio Berlusconi, the first time that the media mogul and three-time prime minister has received a definitive conviction and sentence in his 20-year dominance of Italian politics.
The verdict may signal the unwinding of Berlusconi’s colorful political career and could also undermine Italy’s fragile coalition government.
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 prime minister, who had been free pending the appeal of his conviction, is still unlikely to see the inside of a jail cell. The sentence will be cut by three years because of a 2006 amnesty law, meaning that the 76-year-old Berlusconi will probably face at most a year of house arrest or community service because of his age.
Still, it was his most stinging judicial defeat after years of court battles over charges varying 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.
In a video message released after the verdict, Berlusconi denounced the sentence as “irresponsible” and called the judicial authority to hand out jail sentences the “most terrible of powers.”
Beppe Grillo, the leader of the populist Five Star movement and an opponent of Berlusconi, likened the ruling to the “fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.” Writing on his blog, Grillo said: “Today, this wall, for a long time an optical illusion, kept alive by the special effects of newspapers and television, has fallen.”
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. He is appealing the verdict.
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.
He also risks yet another trial; a politician, Sergio De Gregorio, told prosecutors he had been paid the equivalent of about $4 million by Berlusconi to switch sides in Parliament and join his party.
Berlusconi maintains that he is innocent and contends that the cases against him are the work of leftists on a political vendetta.
The verdict comes as the shaky coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Enrico Letta, which depends in large part on Berlusconi’s support, tries to hold together while tackling the deep-seated economic problems. The country is mired in recession, and public debt tops $2.5 trillion.
After the ruling, Michaela Biancofiore, an undersecretary in the government and a member of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, said she would resign from the government in protest.
Luca d’Alessandro, one of the party’s Parliament members, said, “This country used to be famous as the cradle of law. Today it has become its tomb, run by a corporation of grave diggers in gowns who have carried out the perfect crime.”
But after leaving a meeting with Berlusconi, Nitto Palma, who served as justice minister in Berlusconi’s last government, said, “This sentence will not affect the Letta government, which was created to serve the country and which will continue to serve it as far as we are concerned.”
Already riven by infighting, some members of the center-left Democratic Party, which has demonized Berlusconi for years, may seek to pull out of the government rather than partner with a party run by a convicted criminal.
The People of Freedom party will struggle to find a successor and to survive without its founder. Reports have suggested that Berlusconi’s daughter Marina, chairwoman of his Fininvest holding company, might step up, but she has denied any political ambitions.
Kington is a special correspondent