Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has recently donned the mantle of kingmaker behind the current, fragile Italian government, is in trouble again after a court in the northern city of Milan upheld a conviction for tax fraud. Mr. Berlusconi has been convicted to a year in prison and barred from holding public office and company directorships for five years.
The former Prime Minister and Italy’s richest man has decided to challenge the decision in the appellate court. His appeal will suspend the punishment pending a final ruling in the case which revolves around his Mediaset business empire. The trial began seven years ago and examined the selling of broadcast rights from his Mediaset television empire at hugely inflated costs in order to avoid paying taxes.
The present upholding of the verdict will add to the political turmoil and instability that has gripped Italy. This conviction might strengthen the resolve of Italy’s new Prime Minister Enerico Letta not to accede to certain populist demands made by Mr. Berlusconi in return for his support for the Letta government in parliament.
Mr. Berlusconi remains a major political force in Italy. His People of Freedom party won nearly a third of the vote in the general election held in February. Since the third force, comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five star Movement, has refused any political alliances with the right or the centre, Mr. Enrico Letta and his centre-Left PDL has had to enter into a power-sharing agreement with Mr. Berlusconi.
The former Prime Minister is said to be biding his time in order to bring down the new government since his party is expected to make a strong showing in the next general election. Mr. Letta’s Cabinet is shaky. One Minister has already seen her portfolio changed for tactless remarks against the gay community.
The 76-year-old former Prime Minister was also convicted in March for the publication of police wiretap transcripts in a newspaper he owns. The leaked wiretaps aimed to discredit a political rival. He is also appealing that conviction.
This is not the first time that Mr. Berlusconi has been found guilty. But he has so far escaped prison either because the appellate courts have struck down decisions by lower courts or because of statute of limitations has kicked in. But even if his convictions are upheld, it is likely that the 76-year-old former premier will never see the inside of a prison cell given his age.
The judge who read out the sentence was severe. Alessandra Galli said Berlusconi was “the brain behind a scientific and systematic fiscal evasion of exceptional dimensions” through which he sent “enormous economic wealth abroad, damaging the interest not only of the State but of his company Mediaset as well ” .