ROME — A court in Milan convicted former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of tax fraud Friday and sentenced him to four years in prison. Berlusconi is also on trial over charges that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute. He has denied the accusation.
The ruling was Berlusconi’s fourth lower-court conviction, and the first since he stepped down as prime minister in November, after years in which his personal legal battles often eclipsed the work of his government. His four-year sentence was reduced to one year under a law aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.
Besides being a blow to Berlusconi personally, the ruling comes at a time when his center-right party is unraveling and Italy is in the throes of the most dramatic political transition since the early 1990s, when he first came to power. It was just two days ago that he announced that he would not lead his party in Italy’s next elections.
“It’s without a doubt a political sentence, the way so many other trials invented against me have been political,’’ Berlusconi said after Friday’s ruling, calling in to a news program on a channel he owns.
A lawyer for Berlusconi said the former prime minister would appeal the ruling, which must go through two more rounds of appeal before becoming definitive. It is unlikely that he will ever serve jail time. Even if a definitive ruling were reached before the statute of limitations in the case runs out next year, Berlusconi would enjoy immunity so long as he remained in the Parliament.
However, the judges also barred the former prime minister from holding public office for five years, a penalty that would be applied only if his conviction were upheld by the highest court. They also took the unusual step of reading the reasoning behind the verdict, which normally takes between 60 and 90 days after a ruling. That could speed up the appeals process.
On Wednesday, Berlusconi, 76, said he would not lead his People of Liberty party in Italy’s national elections next spring to replace the unelected technocratic government of Prime Minister Mario Monti, who has been guiding Italy through a perilous economic crisis. But he said that he would stay involved in politics.
The investigation at the heart of Friday’s ruling centered on television and movie rights that Berlusconi’s Fininvest holding company bought for US programs in the 1990s from companies in the United States. Judges said that Berlusconi and other executives of his company Mediaset, Italy’s largest private broadcaster, inflated the price of the programs through a series of offshore companies and funneled the overflow into illegal slush funds.
The court Friday acquitted the chairman of Mediaset, Fedele Confalonieri, a longtime Berlusconi loyalist.
Berlusconi, who has major holdings in real estate, insurance, advertising and publishing, as well as Mediaset, has been involved in dozens of legal cases.
Between 1997 and 1998, when Berlusconi was the opposition leader, he was convicted by lower courts on charges of tax fraud and corruption.