An Italian court on Monday sentenced former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to seven years in jail and banned him from public office, after convicting him of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power to hide the liaison.
Berlusconi attacked “an incredible sentence, of a violence never seen or heard before, handed down to try and eliminate me from political life,” while his lawyers said they would appeal.
The sentence went beyond the request of prosecutors, who had called for the billionaire, 76, to serve six years, and could spark serious tensions within Italy’s uneasy grand coalition government.
“I was truly convinced I would be absolved because there was absolutely no possibility of being found guilty based on the evidence,” Berlusconi said in a note, adding: “I am utterly innocent.”
The sentence was “completely illogical,” his lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said, amid a clamor from supporters accusing the Milan judges of persecuting the three-time former prime minister.
The verdict brings to a climax a two-year trial which started a media frenzy — amid allegations of strippers dressed as nuns and erotic party games with topless girls — and sparked cheers and applause from anti-Berlusconi protesters outside the court.
The media magnate’s cronies described the verdict as “utterly shameful” and “a political verdict, a coup d’etat.”
Berlusconi’s spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti said it confirmed “the bid to eliminate Berlusconi from the political scene, but the attempt, which has gone beyond the limits of credibility, will fail.”
Berlusconi’s daughter, Marina, chairperson of his company Fininvest, said it was “an absurd spectacle which had nothing to do with justice” and the guilty verdict “was written from the start.”
James Walston, politics professor at the American University of Rome, said the conviction would “accentuate already existing divisions within the Cabinet.”
“Berlusconi’s supporters are defending him even more passionately than before. They are spitting fire and blood,” he said.
Italian Minister of the Interior Angelo Alfano, the secretary of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party, said the verdict was “worse than the worst case scenario” and urged him to “soldier on” — a possible reference to his support for the government.
The coalition relies on the support of the PDL, and observers had warned the capricious billionaire could pull the rug out from under the government if he felt it was not offering him legal protection.
The sentence will be suspended until all appeals have been exhausted.
Berlusconi was accused of paying for sex on several occasions in 2010 with Moroccan-born Karima el-Mahroug, a then-17-year-old exotic dancer nicknamed “Ruby the Heart Stealer.”
He was also accused of having called a police station to pressure for el-Mahroug’s release from custody when she was arrested for theft. His defense claimed he believed el-Mahroug was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident, but prosecutors insisted it was a bid to conceal their affair.