Silvio Berlusconi's legal woes worsened significantly on Wednesday after a Milan appeals court upheld a conviction and four-year prison sentence against the former Italian prime minister on tax fraud charges. The ruling would also ban Berlusconi from holding public office for five years.
A lower court had convicted Berlusconi and his media empire Mediaset of the charges in October, a ruling Berlusconi appealed. In Italy, court decisions do not become valid until all appeal options are exhausted, and the former leader still has one more instance to go before he is threatened with any penalties. Under Italian law, however, it is unlikely he will spend any time in jail. A furlough law would likely be applied to commute three years, and people with one-year sentences aren't normally sent to prison in Italy.
During his time as prime minister, Berlusconi created several laws in an attempt to shield himself and his company Mediaset from several legal proceedings.
Did Berlusconi Lead 'Chain of Command'?
Berlusconi was one of a total of 11 defendants in the Mediaset trial, which began six years ago. He was found guilty of being personally involved in a scheme to artificially inflate the cost of television rights using offshore companies under his control. The money thus generated was used to establish illegal slush funds, the court ruled. Berlusconi, Milan public prosecutor Fabio De Pasquale says, led the "chain of command."
De Pasquale argued that Mediaset was able to boost television rights it was selling by hundreds of millions of euros, and asked that all 11 defendants be sent to jail.
Throughout, Berlusconi has denied all charges against him, instead portraying himself as the victim of a political witch hunt by prosecutors in Milan. The former Italian leader said he never had anything to do with the balance sheets at Mediaset. Those close to Berlusconi claim he has been hunted for 20 years by judges and prosecutors who want to silence him.
The politician even sought to move his trials to Brescia, claiming that the Milan judges were biased against him and that the city had grown "hostile" to its native son. However, a high court in Rome rejected the request on Monday.
Trouble for New Government?
Berlusconi is an important partner in the new governing coalition in Italy that is backing Prime Minister Enrico Letta, and his prosecution in the appeals process could create problems for the new government. Letta's government is weak, and public opinion polls show that Berlusconi could win if a new election were held. However, it is uncertain what kind of impact Wednesday's or future rulings might have on the powerful but scandal-riddled politician's future career.
The former Italian leader is also facing legal troubles on another front, with the so-called "Ruby Trial" continuing. In those proceedings, Berlusconi is accused of abuse of office and of having sex with an underage prostitute. The case has dragged along, with numerous delays because of minor medical problems with Berlusconi, his appointment calendar and the petition to move the trial at the high court.
The trial is scheduled to resume on Monday, with prosecutors wrapping up closing arguments, and a ruling is believed to be near, with a possible sentence of up to 12 years if Berlusconi is convicted. Berlusconi has denied all allegations against him.