LONDON -- Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was found guilty of tax fraud Friday and sentenced to four years in prison, a stunning setback for the media mogul-turned-politician who has dominated Italy's political landscape for the last 20 years.
But Berlusconi, 76, will almost certainly appeal the verdict and is not expected to go to prison anytime soon -- and possibly not at all because of Italian restrictions against putting someone his age behind bars, analysts say.
Still, the conviction is a blow for a man who only a few months ago floated the idea of a comeback as Italy’s leader after having been forced to step down last November. Earlier this week, Berlusconi ended speculation by announcing that he would not run for reelection after all but would focus on grooming younger leaders.
Whether the decision to retire from elected office was made in anticipation of a guilty verdict in the tax fraud trial is unclear. Besides the prison term, the sentence handed down Friday in Milan bars Berlusconi from holding public office for three years, the Italian news agency Ansa reported.
The case centered on purchases by Berlusconi’s company, Mediaset, of television rights for American movies. Prosecutors argued that Mediaset bought the rights through offshore entities and then falsely declared those payments in order to avoid paying taxes.
The trial began six years ago but made only spasmodic progress, partly because of delaying tactics by Berlusconi’s defense team and because of an on-again, off-again immunity law for certain elected officials. He has two levels of appeal open to him, meaning that the case could drag on for some years.
Many Italians believed that Berlusconi would never be convicted for his alleged offenses because of the way his government tried to manipulate the judicial system and because of his vast fortune and political connections.
Aside from the case decided Friday, Berlusconi is also on trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage girl whom he later allegedly tried to spring from police custody by using his political influence. That influence is likely to diminish significantly now, analysts say.
When the flamboyant and controversial former leader announced Wednesday that he would not stand for reelection, Berlusconi told Italian media that his decision to step back was motivated by the same patriotism that induced him to go into politics nearly 20 years ago.
“For love of Italy one can do crazy things and wise things,” he said. “Now I want to take a step back with the same love that moved me to act then.”
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in July 2011, four months before he resigned under fire. Credit: Reuters