Berlusconi lawyers press court to acquit him of tax fraud

Former prime minister could face one year jail sentence or three year public office ban

The ‘Corte di Cassazione’ (Italy’s Supreme Court) where former Italian prime minister  Silvio Berlusconi final appeal against a conviction for tax fraud is being hear today. Photograph: Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images.

The ‘Corte di Cassazione’ (Italy’s Supreme Court) where former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi final appeal against a conviction for tax fraud is being hear today. Photograph: Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images.

 

Lawyers for Silvio Berlusconi asked the supreme court on today to throw out a tax fraud conviction against the former prime minister in a case that may decide not only his future but that of Italy’s fragile coalition government.

The Court of Cassation was hearing defence arguments from both Mr Berlusconi’s lawyers and those for three others convicted by two lower courts of the fraudulent purchase of broadcasting rights by his Mediaset television empire.

A verdict by the five judges is unlikely to come until tomorrow.

Mr Berlusconi’s chief counsel, Franco Coppi, said he and another lawyer for the media mogul expected to speak for five hours in an afternoon session.

The public prosecutor yesterday asked the court to reject Mr Berlusconi’s final appeal against a four-year jail sentence commuted to one year under an amnesty. But he said a ban from public office for the four-times prime minister should be reduced from five years to three.

If the court confirms the sentence, there could be political turmoil in the midst of Italy’s worst postwar recession.

The weak coalition government of prime minister Enrico Letta’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right PDL could be plunged into crisis, with potential fallout across the euro zone.

The 76-year-old media tycoon says he has been persecuted by leftist judges ever since he entered politics in 1994, but if he loses the supreme court case it will be his first definitive conviction in at least two dozen trials.

Because of his age, the jail sentence would be served through community service or house arrest and followers say he would continue to run his People of Freedom party, which he founded and bankrolls and which has no clear alternative leader.

But the power and campaigning skills which have enabled him to dominate Italian politics for 20 years, since the so-called Bribesville graft investigation wiped out the old political order, would be severely curtailed.

There is speculation that Mr Berlusconi’s oldest daughter, Marina, 46 and chairwoman of his Fininvest holding company, would become the party’s public figurehead if he is convicted.

Mr Berlusconi’s most hawkish supporters have threatened a mass desertion of the government and parliament and blocking of Italy’s motorways with public demonstrations if he is convicted.

But a greater threat to the government could come from Mr Letta’s party, which is torn by a leadership struggle. Many of the party’s members are already deeply uneasy about being in coalition with Mr Berlusconi and could rebel if he is found guilty.

Reuters