MILAN — Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was convicted Thursday over the illegal publication in a newspaper owned by his media empire of wiretapped conversations related to a bank takeover attempt.
A Milan court found Berlusconi guilty of breach of confidentiality and sentenced him to one year in jail, though it did not issue an order on carrying out the sentence. In Italy, it is rare for anyone to be put behind bars pending a possible appeal except in the case of very serious crimes such as murder.
The verdict, the first of three expected for Berlusconi in the coming weeks, comes at a moment of political uncertainty after February national elections failed to elect a clear winner. Berlusconi’s center-right coalition finished second.
The conviction, however, has no bearing on Berlusconi’s eligibility to participate in discussions on forming a new government, which are expected to begin March 20. Lawmakers have failed, despite several attempts, to pass a law banning candidates from Parliament after any criminal conviction.
While Berlusconi’s party will not be tapped to form a new government, a task that is expected to fall to Pier Luigi Bersani on the center-left, President Giorgio Napolitano will be looking to secure as broad agreement as possible for legislative priorities.
Napolitano’s role as president is to preside over coalition talks by convening the parliamentary groups for meetings in which he seeks to gain consensus for a new government, a particularly difficult task given the three-way gridlock resulting from last month’s vote.
The third player with influence on the discussions is comic-turned-civic leader Beppe Grillo, who has said his movement —which gained 25 percent of the vote — will not support any government with a vote of confidence, which must be secured by Italy’s constitution. It remains to be seen how this conflict can be resolved.
Berlusconi, in a statement, accused the courts of judicial persecution “that continues for 20 years and is revived every time there are particularly complex moments in the political life of the country.”
He expects convictions in his pending Milan trials: an appeal to his October conviction on a tax fraud charge and the sensational sex-for-hire trial that accuses him of having paid for sex with an underage teen and using his influence to cover it up.
Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo Berlusconi, was convicted of the same charge and sentenced to two years and three months. Paolo Berlusconi is publisher of the Milan newspaper il Giornale, which published the transcript of the conversation.
Silvio Berlusconi’s defense team and political allies accused the court of a speedy verdict for political impact.
“It is always more clear that there is an attempt to eliminate Silvio Berlusconi by judicial means, having failed by electoral or democratic measures,” said Angelino Alfano, the head of Belursconi’s People of Freedom party.
The charge relates to the 2005 publication of a wiretapped call that was part of an investigation into the Unipol financial services company’s bid to take over the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro. The bid was later blocked by Italy’s central bank, contributing to the forced resignation of Bank of Italy chief Antonio Fazio, and led to a series of trials that saw Fazio and others convicted.
Wiretapped conversations are widely published in Italian media.