ROME — A court in Milan found former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi guilty Monday of paying for sex with a minor and abusing his office to cover it up, imposing a seven-year jail sentence and banning him from public office for life.
The ruling, like most things involving Berlusconi, polarized Italy. It shook the governing coalition in which Berlusconi’s center-right party is participating, but was not expected to topple it.
The former prime minister, who denies wrongdoing, holds no official post but remains influential in the ruling coalition that includes his party. He does not immediately have to give up his political activities, pending two rounds of appeals.
The trial, involving an underage woman named Karima El-Mahroug, nicknamed “Ruby Heart-Stealer,” had become the most personal, and tawdry, of Berlusconi’s many legal sagas. The three presiding judges, all women, handed Berlusconi a seven-year sentence, tougher than the six years that prosecutors had requested.
Demonstrators, both for and against Berlusconi, gathered outside the Milan courthouse for the ruling, and the courtroom was packed with journalists from around the world. The former prime minister was not in the courtroom.
Berlusconi, 76, who is widely seen as remaining in politics in order to keep his parliamentary immunity and to protect his business interests — has vehemently denied all the charges, accusing prosecutors of being on a left-wing witch hunt against him.
The ruling inevitably puts strains on the nearly two-month-old government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta, a coalition that unites his center-left Democratic Party with Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party for the first time.
In the coalition, Berlusconi has been fighting to abolish an unpopular property-tax increase imposed by former prime minister Mario Monti, and wants to delay raising the value-added tax, measures Italy had committed to in order to bring its budget deficit below 3 percent of gross domestic product.
But Letta’s tenure has largely been overshadowed by Berlusconi’s legal troubles.
Both Berlusconi and Mahroug say they did not have sex, although Mahroug said the prime minister gave her about $9,100 the first time she visited his villa for a party in 2010.
The judges found Berlusconi guilty of paying Mahroug for sex before she turned 18 and abusing his office in calling the police to intervene when she was detained in May 2010 for theft.
Berlusconi had said he called the police to avoid a diplomatic incident because he had been told Mahroug was the niece of Hosni Mubarak, then the president of Egypt.
In what has become known as “the Ruby Trial,’’ which began more than two years ago, Milan prosecutors painted a picture in which young women attended parties at Berlusconi’s private residence near Milan in exchange for money and gifts.
They said the evenings were orchestrated by a former news anchor on one of Berlusconi’s television networks, a show-business agent, and a former dental hygienist-turned regional politician. All three deny wrongdoing.
In a testimony in the separate trial for the three aides, Mahroug said that she received up to $4,000 for the half-dozen evenings that she attended what have become famously known in Italy as “bunga bunga” parties at Berlusconi’s house.
Berlusconi’s political career — and with it the stability of the Letta government — hinge on a separate trial in which Berlusconi has been convicted of tax fraud by two lower courts in a case involving his Mediaset television empire.
The final ruling by Italy’s highest court is expected this year. If it upholds the lower court rulings, Berlusconi could be banned from holding public office for five years, with parliamentary approval.