MILAN: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in jail yesterday for tax fraud in connection with the purchase of broadcasting rights by his Mediaset television company.
The 76-year-old billionaire, who was convicted three times during the 1990s in the first degree before being cleared by higher courts, has the right to appeal the ruling two more times before the sentence becomes definitive. He will not be jailed unless he loses the final appeal.
The ruling comes two days after Berlusconi confirmed he would not run in next year’s elections as the leader of his People of Freedom (PDL) party, ending almost 19 years as the dominant politician of the centre-right.
Milan judge Edoardo d’Avossa told a packed court that between 2000 and 2003, there had been “a very significant amount of tax evasion” and “an incredible mechanism of fraud” in place around the buying and selling of broadcast rights. The court’s written ruling said Berlusconi showed a “natural capacity for crime”.
Berlusconi lawyers Piero Longo and Niccolo Ghedini said the the ruling was “totally divorced from all judicial logic”, adding that they hoped the “atmosphere” at the appeals courts would be different.
Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men, became prime minister for a second time in 2001 after winning a landslide election victory. Even while he was prime minister, he remained in effective charge of Mediaset even though he had handed over control of day-to-day operations, the court said.
The four-time prime minister and other Mediaset executives stood accused of inflating the price paid for TV rights via offshore companies controlled by Berlusconi and skimming off part of the money to create illegal slush funds. The investigation focused on television and cinema rights that Berlusconi’s holding company Fininvest bought via offshore companies from Hollywood studios. The court also ordered damages provisionally set at ¤10m ($13m) to be paid by Berlusconi and his co-defendants to tax authorities.
The flamboyant Berlusconi, who is still on trial in a separate prostitution case, resigned as prime minister a year ago as Italy faced a Greek-style debt crisis, handing the reins of government to economics professor Mario Monti.
Angelino Alfano, secretary of the PDL, said the ruling proved once again “judicial persecution” of the media magnate, while political rival Antonio Di Pietro, a former magistrate, hailed the decision, saying “the truth has been exposed”.
Should the ruling be confirmed on appeal, Berlusconi would also be forbidden from holding public office for five years, and from being a company executive for three years.
“This is not a sentence, but an attempt at political homicide,” Fabrizio Chicchito, the PDL’s chief whip in the Chamber of Deputies, said referring to the ban from holding office.
Now that Berlusconi has said he will pull out of politics, he may be focusing more on his business empire, which includes Mediaset, AC Milan soccer club, and Internet bank Mediolanum.
Shares in Mediaset, Italy’s biggest private broadcaster, fell as much as 3 percent after the ruling, and are down about 50 percent in the last year.
The broadcaster has been struggling against rivals like News Corp’s broadcaster Sky Italia and a host of online media, while its core advertising revenues are feeling the pinch of the recession.