Berlusconi's tax fraud conviction upheld

For two decades Silvio Berlusconi seemed
Teflon-coated, untouched by dozens of court
cases and scandals, dominating political life
and becoming Italy's prime minister four
times.
But on Thursday, judges finally caught up
with the flamboyant 76-year-old when the
Supreme Court rejected his appeal against a
four-year jail sentence — commuted to one
year under a general amnesty for crimes
committed before 2006 that the government
instituted in an effort to ease prison
crowding.
It ordered a review of the second part of the
sentence — a five-year ban from public
office for tax fraud — but the ruling was
nonetheless a devastating blow that could at
last signal the political twilight of Italy's
greatest showman.
The billionaire media mogul, Italy's most
colourful and scandal-prone figure but also
its most skilful politician, has never previously
been finally convicted in up to 30 court cases
launched against him.
He is unlikely to actually serve time in jail as
felons in Italy who are over the age of 70
generally serve out their sentence doing
community service or under house arrest. It
is also unusual for first-time offenders with a
sentence as short as one year to serve jail
time.
In a video-address released after the
decision was revealed, Berlusconi said the
sentence was baseless and that it deprived
him of his freedom and political rights.
The longtime politician and business mogul
said he is the victim of "an incredible series
of accusations and trials that had nothing to
do with reality."
Berlusconi denied the fraud claims and said
that he has been harassed by a biased
judicial system for years.
Looking shaken, he vowed to press ahead in
politics with the refounding of his original
political party, Forza Italia, through the
mobilization of young people, and a reform
of the justice system. But he acknowledged
that he had "arrived almost at the end of my
working life."
Self-made man
Even though the ban on holding public office
is under review, Berlusconi's ability to exploit
his campaigning and communication skills will
be severely limited.
He says he has been
systematically persecuted by
leftist magistrates bent on
perverting democracy since he
stormed into politics as a new
force in 1994 after a massive
bribery scandal swept away the
postwar political order.
One of Italy's richest men,
whose self-made image is a
big part of his appeal,
Berlusconi has a business
empire that includes
construction, media and the AC
Milan soccer club. He has
made a career of confounding
pundits who repeatedly
counted him out.
But this time, his chances of
bouncing back look slight,
despite his supporters'
insistence that he will continue to lead his
centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party.
No apparent successor on
horizon
Berlusconi has failed to groom any strong
successor, and there is speculation his oldest
daughter, Marina, 46, who is the chairwoman
of his Fininvest holding company, will become
the PDL figurehead.
The ruling has huge implications that go way
beyond the impact on Berlusconi himself, and
could seriously endanger Italy's uneasy left-
right coalition government.
Widely known as il Cavaliere , or the Knight,
because of a state decoration, Berlusconi
looked down and out for much of 2012 after
a jeering crowd hounded him from office in
November 2011 as Italy came close to a
Greek-style debt crisis.
Months of indecision over whether to stand
in an election brought his PDL to the brink of
disintegration in late 2012, with the party
garnering less than 15 per cent of public
support in opinion polls. Pundits widely
predicted that he was finished.
But Berlusconi was suddenly energized after
precipitating the fall of his successor,
technocrat Mario Monti, in December last
year. Diving into the campaign, he once again
showed unrivalled mastery of communication
and ran rings round his lacklustre rivals on
the left and centre.
He came within a whisker of success, losing
to the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) by
less than one per cent.
Underage sex conviction not
final
Berlusconi joined a coalition with centre-left
Prime Minister Enrico Letta and appeared to
be thriving, with the PDL topping opinion
polls — until his legal troubles caught up with
him.
In June, he was sentenced to
seven years in jail for abusing
his office and paying for sex
with the Moroccan-born
nightclub dancer Karima El
Mahroug, alias "Ruby the
Heartstealer" when she was
under age.
The case splashed allegations
of lurid "bunga bunga" orgies
at Berlusconi's villas across
the newspapers, finally
alienating some of his most
loyal conservative supporters.
But the mogul has two appeals
before that conviction becomes
effective. Thursday's case is much more
serious now that the verdict is final.
Signature off-colour humour
Berlusconi is one of the most extraordinary
characters to come out of Italy's often
bizarre political landscape, possessing a
unique mix of political talent, brazen
behaviour and a propensity for diplomatic
gaffes that led to his virtual ostracism from
European summits before his fall in 2011.
But in government, he consistently showed
himself to be better at promises than action,
failing to implement pledges to liberalize an
inflexible and uncompetitive economy despite
his landslide third election victory in 2008.
Italy's longest-serving prime minister is
known for irrepressible off-colour humour, his
facelifts, perennial tan, make-up and hair
weave.
But his flamboyant personality hides a keen
political mind and an almost uncanny talent
for tapping into the fears and concerns of
ordinary Italians.
His success in clawing back a 10-point
centre-left lead before February's election
was largely down to populist tactics such as
homing in on a painful housing tax imposed
by Monti and attacking German hegemony in
Europe.
His energy was remarkable for a man of his
age, with most of his mainstream opponents
unable to compete with a storm of television
appearances where he rarely lost his cool
and showed off his talent for off-the-cuff
quips that some Italians would laugh about
for days afterward.
His wife, Veronica, left him in 2009, accusing
him of consorting with underage women. He
was last year ordered to pay her a
settlement of 100,000 euros ($136,637) a
day. But he even made campaign jokes about
that.
On Thursday, his legendary luck finally ran
out.
With files from CBC News and The
Associated Press