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Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi begins his community service at Milan hospice

The three-time premier's four-year prison sentence for tax evasion was commuted to nine months community service, entailing just one four-hour session per week

In Campo de Fiori, a man of a similar age to Silvio Berlusconi sneered at the news. “If you or I stole a loaf of bread,” he said, “they’d throw us in jail. He’s been at it for 40 years and they give him community service once a week.”

At 9.45am today in Milan, the former Italian Prime Minister began his first-ever sentence after a cat-and-mouse game with law enforcement that has lasted most of four decades.

Not many convicts turn up for their punishment in a bullet-proof limousine with a raft of personal security men. Heavily made up and wearing a navy suit and black sweater, the three-times premier made an unusually low-key entrance for his four hours’ work a week with elderly dementia patients. His usual grin was absent; instead, the mogul’s expression was a mix of resignation and condescension.

A trade unionist protester in a clown’s hat shouted “Go to prison!” as the tycoon stepped out of his chauffeur-driven car. Not everyone has been as hostile. Two relatives of patients at the Sacra Famiglia Hospice near Milan surprised a reporter on Rai Tre television by declaring their support for Berlusconi. “It’s terrible. Poor man, those judges were out to get him,” said one woman.

It’s safe to say that the majority of Italians think he’s got what he deserves – or perhaps less than he deserves, with a four-year prison sentence for tax evasion commuted to nine months community service, entailing just one four-hour session per week.

Michele Restelli, head of the Sacra Famiglia’s services, told La Repubblica newspaper that Berlusconi’s introduction would be “gradual” so that he and the elderly patients could get used to each other. “He could do all sorts of things,” he said. “He could help with meals, which are tricky because sometimes you have to ‘remind’ the patient that they are eating.”

Berlusconi has hinted that he might make a major contribution to the care of Alzheimer’s sufferers. “I think in the end I will stay a lot longer than I have to. I have a big surprise prepared,” the 77-year-old told a radio show. He has often turned setbacks to PR advantage. Many hope Berlusconi might quietly withdraw from public life after the shame of a criminal conviction. But that would be a surprise too far.