Berlusconi’s two-year ban from public office upheld by court

Ruling dents former prime minister’s hopes of standing for European Parliament in May

Italian former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with by girlfriend Francesca Pascale, leaving the People of Freedom party’s national convention in Rome late last year. He has lost the appeal against his tax fraud conviction. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Italian former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with by girlfriend Francesca Pascale, leaving the People of Freedom party’s national convention in Rome late last year. He has lost the appeal against his tax fraud conviction. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

 

Italy’s highest appeals court last night confirmed a two-year ban from public office for centre-right leader and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi over a conviction for tax fraud.

His lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling of the Court of Cassation, which diminishes Mr Berlusconi’s hopes of running as a candidate in elections for the European Parliament in May.

Mr Berlusconi had appealed against the ban handed down by a Milan appeals court last October. He also faces a four-year prison sentence, commuted to one year likely to be spent doing community service, after he was found guilty in August last year of masterminding a complex system of tax evasion by his holding company Fininvest.

Mr Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party is the largest parliamentary opposition to Matteo Renzi’s coalition government, has continued to lead his party from outside parliament since he was stripped of his seat as a senator in November.

Under the terms of the so-called Severino law, Mr Berlusconi was last November expelled from the Italian Senate and also banned from holding public office for six years. The Severino law, introduced by the government of Mario Monti in 2012, rules that any parliamentarian who is definitively sentenced to more than two years in prison should be expelled from parliament and prohibited from public office.

The 77-year-old, who says he will appeal to Italy’s constitutional court against the tax fraud verdict, has already appealed to the European Court of Human Rights against his expulsion from the Senate.

In addition to the tax fraud case, he is fighting a seven-year jail sentence issued by a Milan court last year for paying for sex with an underaged prostitute and abusing his office to cover it up.

The billionaire media tycoon denies all wrongdoing and has said he is the victim of politically motivated prosecutors and judges. His allies criticised the latest ruling against him and said there was no doubt he would still spearhead the campaign by Forza Italia at the European Parliament elections.

“The Court of Cassation’s ruling is abnormal and unjust,” said Mariastella Gelmini, a Forza Italia deputy and former education minister, of the high court ruling. “There is an ideological prejudice against Berlusconi that annuls the rights of the defence.”

Speaking on Monday, European justice commissioner Viviane Reding appeared to block any Berlusconi candidacy, when pointing out that EU norms are “very clear on this matter”, ie if a candidate is legally ineligible to stand for parliament in his home country, then he is equally ineligible to contest European elections.

Despite his legal problems, Berlusconi continues to command a solid core of popular support. Most opinion polls give Forza Italia around 22 percent of the vote, roughly level with Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement but trailing Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD), which has around 30 percent.

Mr Berlusconi is also a key player in Renzi’s attempts to reform Italy’s electoral law and political institutions. Mr Renzi insisted on drawing up the draft reforms currently before parliament with Berlusconi, despite resistance from members of his own PD who said that they gave too much power and influence to the former premier. – (Additional reporting by Reuters)