Italy ex-PM Berlusconi in angry tirade at jail ruling

"We are living in a country... that doesn't know how to be just"

Italy's former PM Silvio Berlusconi has broadcast an angry video message after his prison sentence for tax fraud was upheld by the country's highest court.

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

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

Berlusconi, 76, is unlikely to go to jail because of his age.

While he is expected to serve out his sentence as house arrest, he has the option of asking to do community service instead, with the deadline for the application not expected to fall until mid-October.

'Judicial harassment'

The ruling by Rome's Court of Cassation, against which he cannot appeal, came after a three-day hearing. Berlusconi was not in court.

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His drama, which has sucked so much of the oxygen out of Italy's public discourse, still has a few acts left”

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

"No-one can understand the onslaught of real violence that has been directed against me following an incredible series of accusations and trials that don't have any foundation in reality," he said.

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

"In exchange for the commitments I have made over almost 20 years in favour of my country and coming almost at the end of my public life, I have been rewarded with accusations and a verdict that is founded on absolutely nothing, that takes away my personal freedom and my political rights."

He criticised the country's judicial record, saying: "Is this the Italy that we want? Is this the Italy that we love? Absolutely not."

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

The case concerns deals that his firm Mediaset made to purchase TV rights to US films.

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 Mr 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 Mr Berlusconi from public office. That will be re-examined by a lower court.

So Mr 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.

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

'Stay calm'

The court at the time heard that he and other executives had bought TV rights at inflated prices to avoid paying taxes.

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

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.

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

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano also urged the country to stay calm.

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

Appeals pending

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.

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

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

Berlusconi's legal team said there were "solid reasons" why Berlusconi should have been acquitted, and it 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".

The three-time prime minister and senator 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 alleged tax evasion cases, one of them involving British lawyer David Mills, expired under the statute of limitations.

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Berlusconi's era

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