Italy ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi jail term confirmed

Screen grab from Berlusconi video message Silvio Berlusconi proclaimed his innocence in a video message after the verdict

Italy's highest court has upheld a prison sentence given to former PM Silvio Berlusconi for tax evasion.

The court also ordered a further judicial review on whether he should be banned from holding public office.

In an emotional video statement, Berlusconi denounced the decision as "based on nothing, and which deprives me of my freedom and political rights".

The sentence cannot be appealed against further but Berlusconi, 76, is unlikely to go to jail because of his age.

The ruling by the Court of Cassation in Rome came after a three-day hearing. Berlusconi was not in court.

The former prime minister was sentenced to four years in prison at the conclusion of the trial last October, though this was automatically reduced to a year under a 2006 pardon law.

Berlusconi is likely to serve house arrest or carry out community service.

His lawyers described Thursday's ruling as "unjust".

Analysis

The courtroom dramas of Silvio Berlusconi are part of the backdrop to Italian life. The nation has watched around two dozen trials unfold over nearly 20 years.

But until now they have never seen Berlusconi definitively convicted. And there can be no appeal.

This damning judgement will forever be part of his record - and he will surely see this as one of the darkest moments in his extraordinary political career.

But it could have been even worse: the judges did not uphold the order that would have barred Berlusconi from public office. That will be re-examined by a lower court.

So Berlusconi is certainly down, but not entirely out. He has been diminished and humiliated, but even now it might be a mistake to bet against him.

They had been hoping to overturn his conviction in a case involving television rights bought by his company Mediaset.

It is the billionaire businessman's first definitive conviction after decades of criminal prosecutions.

In his video message after the court's decision he said: "I never devised any system of fiscal fraud. No false invoice exists in the history of Mediaset."

Berlusconi said he was the victim of "an incredible series of accusations and trials that had nothing to do with reality".

He described the more than 50 court cases he has faced as "genuine judicial harassment that is unmatched in the civilised world".

Still in senate

The review of the lower court's five-year ban on holding public office means Berlusconi can remain as a senator and as leader of his centre-right People of Freedom Party (PDL) for now.

The BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome says the former prime minister will be relieved that judges ordered a review of the political ban.

Berlusconi's political grouping forms part of Italy's coalition government. Prime Minister Enrico Letta needs both the PDL and his own centre-left Democratic Party to govern.

Opponents of Silvio Berlusconi celebrate court ruling. 1 Aug 2013 Opponents of Silvio Berlusconi celebrated Thursday's court ruling

In a statement after the court ruling, Mr Letta urged "a climate of serenity" for the good of the country.

President Giorgio Napolitano also urged the country to stay calm.

"The country needs to rediscover serenity and cohesion on vitally important institutional matters that have for too long seen it divided and unable to enact reforms," he said.

A former minister and ally of Berlusconi, Nitto Palma, told Reuters on leaving a PDL meeting that there was a lot of bitterness about the verdict.

However, the sentence would not affect the Letta government, he said.

Berlusconi's legal team said there were "solid reasons" why their client should have been acquitted, and they would "evaluate and pursue any useful initiative, also in Europe, to make sure that this unjust sentence is radically reformed".

Anti-establishment politician Beppe Grillo welcomed the court ruling, comparing the sentence to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In a statement on his blog, Mr Grillo said Berlusconi had "polluted, corrupted and paralysed Italian politics for 21 years".

'Vendetta'
Reporters wait in front of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's residence, Palazzo Grazioli (August 1, 2013) in Rome Berlusconi remained at his Rome residence, Palazza Grazioli, while the judges delivered their verdict

The original ruling last October found that Berlusconi's Mediaset media empire had inflated the price it had paid for film distribution rights to avoid paying taxes.

He was labelled the "author of a whole system of tax fraud".

The three-time prime minister has faced a string of trials since leaving office in November 2011.

Appeals are pending in other cases in which he was convicted of having paid for sex with an under-age prostitute, and arranging for a police wiretap to be leaked and published in a newspaper.

Two other cases of alleged tax evasion, one of them involving British lawyer David Mills, expired under the statute of limitations.

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