Berlusconi sentenced to one year in jail for tax evasion
FORMER ITALIAN prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was given a one- year prison sentence for tax evasion in yet another controversial court ruling in Milan yesterday. However, it is highly unlikely that this latest judicial setback will see Berlusconi (76) go to prison, but it may well signal the end of his political career.
“Berlusconi, Game Over” went the headline on the online edition of the influential Catholic weekly, Famiglia Cristiana last night, reflecting the sense that this could be one setback too many, even for the resourceful Berlusconi.
Yesterday’s court ruling comes just two days after the three-times prime minister announced he would not be leading his centre-right People of Freedom party in next year’s general elections.
Following the ignominy of his euro-crisis-induced departure from office almost exactly one year ago, Berlusconi has seen his approval ratings shrink from 38 per cent in the 2008 general election to 12-15 per cent in recent opinion polls.
Even if the media mogul’s Fininvest business empire rides out this particular storm – shares in his Mediaset television company dropped by 3.11 per cent following the court judgment – this appears to be the end of his political career. Yesterday’s ruling concerned a complex, 10-year-long investigation into the purchase of television rights on behalf of Mediaset.
State prosecutors argued that Berlusconi was the mentor behind a scheme whereby films were bought from major US studios through a series of offshore companies. These same films were then sold to Mediaset in Italy at inflated prices, creating a $40 million (€30.9 million) slush fund and evading taxation.
Summing up the case against Berlusconi in court last June, state prosecutor Fabio de Pasquale said the “fraudulent” scam had Mr Berlusconi’s “fingerprints all over it”.
Initially, the court gave him a four-year sentence but this was reduced to one year because of a 2006 amnesty law. Significantly, the judgment also bans Berlusconi from public office for three years, and orders him and 10 co-defendants to pay €10 million in damages. But, given Italy’s three-level legal system, yesterday’s ruling will only take effect if and when it is upheld at two subsequent appeal hearings.
Given the slow pace of Italian justice and the fact the statute of limitations becomes applicable in June 2014, a definitive conviction in this case, as in many others involving Berlusconi, seems highly unlikely.
Typically, the former prime minister reacted defiantly: “I can only call this guilty verdict political, incredible and intolerable . . .”
He denied any connection between the verdict and his decision not to contest next year’s elections.
Throughout his 20-year-long running battle with the judiciary, Berlusconi has argued he is the victim of a witch hunt by leftist-leaning magistrates. Yesterday he said: “We cannot go on like this, we will have to do something: when you can no longer rely on the impartiality of the judges, then a country has become barbarous and uncivilised and it ceases to be a democracy . . .”
His historic rival, former investigating magistrate Antonio di Pietro, leader of the Italy of Values party, saw matters differently. “All our sins come back to haunt us in the end. Notwithstanding all the ad personam laws that he passed and notwithstanding his constant attempts to delegitimise and denigrate the judiciary, the truth has come to the surface. From now on, Italians should know that a first-level court sentence considers Berlusconi to be a crook.”
Yesterday’s ruling comes at the end of a turbulent four-year period for Berlusconi, marked by sex scandals. As the judges were delivering sentence on the Mediaset case, Berlusconi was on trial in another Milan court over “involvement in underage prostitution” and “abuse of office” in relation to Moroccan Karima “Ruby” el Mahroug.