Berlusconi sentenced to four years in jail for tax evasion


An Italian court has sentenced former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to four years in jail for tax fraud in connection with the purchase of broadcasting rights by his Mediaset television company.

The 76-year-old billionaire media magnate, who was convicted three times during the 1990s in the first degree before being cleared by higher courts, has the right to appeal the ruling two more times before the sentence becomes definitive.

That process is likely to be lengthy and he will not be jailed unless he loses the final appeal. Even then, because the crime was committed when an amnesty to prevent prison overcrowding was in place, the maximum possible jail time would be one year.

Prosecutors had asked for a jail sentence of three years and eight months.

The court also ordered damages provisionally set at €10 million to be paid by Berlusconi and his co-defendants to tax authorities.

The ruling comes two days after Berlusconi (76) confirmed he would not run in next year's elections as the leader of his centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party.

A separate trial over accusations that Berlusconi paid for sex with an under aged prostitute is currently being heard in Milan. He denies all charges against him.

The four-time prime minister and other Mediaset executives stood accused of inflating the price paid for TV rights via offshore companies controlled by Berlusconi, and skimming off part of the money to create illegal slush funds.

The investigation focused on television and cinema rights that Berlusconi's holding company Fininvest bought via offshore companies from U.S. groups for €470 million between 1994 and 1999.

Angelino Alfano, secretary of the PDL, said the ruling proved once again "judicial persecution" of the media-magnate, while political rival Antonio Di Pietro, a former magistrate, hailed the decision, saying "the truth has been exposed."

The court acquitted Mediaset chairman and long-term Berlusconi friend Fedele Confalonieri, for whom prosecutors had sought a sentence of three years and four months.

Shares in Mediaset, Italy's biggest private broadcaster, fell as much as 3 per cent after the ruling.

The flamboyant Berlusconi resigned as prime minister a year ago as Italy faced a Greek-style debt crisis, handing the reins of government to economics professor Mario Monti.

Should the ruling be confirmed on appeal, Berlusconi would also be forbidden from holding public office for five years, and from being a company executive for three years.

"This is not a sentence, but an attempt at political homicide," Fabrizio Chicchito, the PDL's chief whip in the Chamber of Deputies, said referring to the ban from holding office.