The law has finally caught up with Silvio Berlusconi after Italy’s Supreme court declared the former prime minister a tax fraud.
The three-time premier will die with a criminal record after 12 judges in Italy’s highest legal body definitively convicted the billionaire mogul for hiding millions of euros from his media empire in overseas slush funds.
Until this evening, Berlusconi had managed to dodge dozens of convictions on charges including bribery and tax fraud – sometimes thanks to changes in the law that he himself introduced as premier.
The 76-year-old will now face some form of house arrest or the humility of having to perform community service, probably for a year.
The country was anxiously waiting to see if Berlusconi’s first definitive conviction, after two decades of cat-and-mouse tussles with Italy’s judiciary, would have serious repercussions for the left-right coalition of premier Enrico Letta.
Before the verdict, Berlusconi loyalists in the mogul’s centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party were threatening to pull the rug from under the fragile administration.
Soon after the conviction, senior PDL politicians arrived at Palazzo Grazioli, Berlusconi’s Rome residence, where the tycoon had awaited the verdict with his lawyers, family members and closest associates.
The head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, called on the court’s decision to be respected.
In a nine-minute video message, Mr Berlusconi said that “in exchange for the work I've done for nearly 20 years for my country… I get as my reward accusations and a sentence based on nothing that even takes away my personal freedom and my political rights”.
Beppe Grillo, the leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, said the conviction “was like the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany in 1989”.
Mara Carfagna, the former topless model who rose rapidly to become one of Berlusconi’s ministers, said the conviction showed “there was a small part of the judiciary engaged in a war against Berlusconi”. But she said the verdict would not cause the government to collapse.
But pundits said the greatest danger for the wobbly coalition might come from left-wing parliamentarians, who refused to work with a centre-right party run by a convicted criminal.
Significantly, the part of the sentence banning him from holding public office – and thereby a seat in the Senate – for five years, was sent back by the Cassation judges to be reconsidered by Milan’s appeal court. It will probably have to be reduced from five to three years for technical reasons.
The judicial review will enable Berlusconi to remain as a senator and as leader of the PDL for now.
Being kicked out of parliament would have humiliated Berlusconi and left him vulnerable to further legal action. However, the tax fraud conviction itself could lead to him being expelled from parliament.
The verdict is the media mogul’s first definitive conviction in up to 30 court cases on charges ranging from false accounting to having sex with an under-aged prostitute.
Berlusconi has frequently blamed “communist magistrates”, particularly those in Milan, for trying to eliminate him from the political scene since he made the leap from business to government in 1994.
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 underage. He is appealing this sentence.
He denied the latest charges of tax fraud, saying that in the period concerned – 2002-2003 – he was Prime Minister and far removed from the day-to-day running of his Mediaset business empire. His lawyers also argued that the sums claimed – about €7m (£6m) were too small to interest a billionaire such as Berlusconi.
The former prime minister was originally sentenced to four years in prison. But under measure to cut prison overcrowding, this will be cut to one year. In addition, jail sentences are usually commuted to house arrest or community service for people over the age of 70.
Gad Lerner, a leading left-wing writer and journalist, said the verdict marked the beginning of the end of the Berlusconi era. “That time has to come for him as it does for everyone else,” he said.
But Alessandro Sallusti, editor of the Berlusconi family newspaper Il Giornale, said of Berlusconi, who is known in Italy as il Cavaliere – the Knight, “he will never retreat. He never has and he never will. They’ve written him of so many times, but he’s always come back stronger.”
Charge sheet: No stranger to the legal system
Nov 1994 Under investigation for allegedly bribing Italian tax authorities as head of his media and retailing empire.
1997 Convicted of false bookkeeping during 1987 acquisition of a film distribution company and given 16-month suspended sentence, but acquitted on appeal.
2004 Acquitted on one count while statute of limitations expires on another in case of allegedly bribing judges to sway sale of state food conglomerate SME in the 1980s.
2007 Judge throws out tax fraud and embezzlement charges in case involving purchase of TV rights of US. movies by Mediaset, rules statute of limitations expires in a case involving British lawyer David Mills.
August 2012 Strenuously denies newspaper allegations from model Sabina Began that she was pregnant by him before losing her baby. The model was known as ‘Queen Bee’ for her alleged role in Berlusconi’s Bunga Bunga parties.
October 2012 Sentenced to four years in prison by an Italian court for tax evasion. He is banned from holding public office for three years. Appeals lodged.
Nov 2012 Ordered to pay around £2.5m a month to second wife Veronica Lario in divorce settlement. Berlusconi later reveals he will marry Francesca Pascale, nearly 50 years his junior. The model, 27, had been elected in a provincial council in 2009 as a member of his political party.
June 2013 Protests innocence but is convicted of paying for underage prostitutes after being accused of having sex with Karima El Mahroug when she was 17.
July 2013 Nicole Minetti is sentenced to five years for grooming prostitutes for the Bunga Bunga parties. Milanese Court hears she recruited more than 30 women.