Sat, Aug 03, 2013 - Page 1 News List

Berlusconi verdict stokes Italy tensions

END OF THE ROAD?Italy’s top court handed former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi his first definitive conviction in a political career dogged by scandal

AFP, ROME

A man displays a poster depicting former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as he protests in front of Italy’s supreme court building in Rome on Thursday. Italy`s top court upheld a jail sentence against Berlusconi for tax fraud on Thursday. The poster reads "Berlusconi, like this."

Photo: Reuters

Italy’s main political forces yesterday committed to keeping an uneasy coalition in place for the sake of the recession-hit country despite a landmark court ruling against former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

There was a cautious reaction on financial markets, with the main stock index in Milan inching down 0.37 percent, while shares in Berlusconi’s Mediaset business empire plunged by 2.43 percent.

“Government in danger,” newspaper Il Messaggero said, while Il Fatto Quotidiano said the alliance between Berlusconi’s center-right and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s center-left was now “a dead man walking.”

However, reactions from Berlusconi lawmakers were more measured, despite protesting what they called an unjust ruling that bars the billionaire tycoon from being a candidate in elections for the next six years after being convicted of tax fraud.

“Silvio Berlusconi’s legal woes will not be a problem for the government,” said Mara Carfagna, a leading member of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party.

“This anger we all feel must not boil over,” she said.

The greater uncertainty is whether Letta will manage to contain growing discontent within his own Democratic Party about governing together with a coalition led by a confirmed tax fraudster.

Some leftists have called for the 76-year-old Berlusconi to be expelled from his seat in the Senate as soon as possible in line with new rules, although this would aggravate tensions in the coalition.

Alfonso Stile, a law professor at Rome’s Sapienza university, said the procedure to exclude Berlusconi from parliament was in any case “long and tortuous.”

Italy’s top court on Thursday handed Berlusconi his first definitive conviction in a 20-year political career dogged by legal woes and sex scandals.

The court ordered the three-time prime minister to do a year of community service or be placed under house arrest — a sentence due to be enacted in October.

An embittered and visibly shaken Berlusconi delivered a video message on Italian television late on Thursday in which he dismissed the sentence as baseless and vowed to continue his political career.

Berlusconi’s sentence is still to be determined exactly, but his passport will be taken away, he will need court permission for various political activities and even his knighthood could be withdrawn.

Letta on Thursday called for calm “for the good of the country” as he struggles to lead the eurozone’s third-largest economy out of its worst post-war recession and a devastating unemployment crisis.

The current government was installed following a two-month deadlock between Berlusconi and the Democratic Party after close-run February elections.

The case against Berlusconi revolved around the purchase of film distribution rights by Mediaset — the platform for his first entry into politics.

Berlusconi is still appealing convictions in other cases for having sex with an underage prostitute, abusing his prime ministerial powers and leaking a police wiretap to damage a political rival.

Prosecutors have also filed charges alleging that he bribed a senator to join his ranks in a move that helped bring down a previous government in 2008.

All other fraud and bribery charges against him over the years have either been overturned on appeal or have expired under the statute of limitations thanks to Italy’s slow-moving justice system.

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