Three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi's endless legal woes have deepened considerably after a Milan appeals court confirmed his conviction for tax fraud - and raised the possibility that he will be forced to leave parliament.
The 76-year-old mogul was found guilty in October last year of dodging tax on his Mediaset television empire by diverting huge sums to overseas slush funds. He was sentenced to four years in prison and banned from holding public office for five years.
The custodial sentence would not begin until a second appeal found him guilty. But legal experts said the ban on holding public office - including the senate - should commence now because a serious financial crime is involved, and that only special dispensation from the Supreme court would allow Mr Berlusconi to legitimately remain in parliament.
Justin Frosini, an expert in constitutional law at Milan's Bocconi University said: “He should no longer hold public office. He ought to resign from parliament. But I don't think Berlusconi's going to take this lying down, he'll blame it all on 'communist judges'. It's a worrying situation, though. We could be in for a constitutional clash.”
Losing the status and protection afforded by parliament is thought to be one of the tycoon's greatest fears. In addition to having less political influence he would also be more vulnerable to arrest by magistrates - including the prosecutors in Naples who want Mr Berlusconi to be indicted for allegedly bribing former senator Sergio De Gregorio to change political parties and help bring down Roman Prodi's 2006-2008 centre-left government.
Mr Berlusconi has denied the charges in the tax fraud case and says he is being targeted by-left wing judges.
Soon after this evening's verdict at 7.30pm local time, Mr Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini, repeated the assertion that his client was being victimised. “In any court there would never have been a judgment of this kind if the defendant had not been called Silvio Berlusconi,” he said.
The appeal verdict comes at a particularly delicate time in Italian politics, with Mr Berlusconi's centre-right PDL (People of Freedom) party forming part of a precarious left-right coalition government. Nearly every day the ex-premier has been making noises about pulling the rug from under the administration if some key policies he advocates are not agreed to.
James Walston a politics professor at the American University of Rome, said Mr Berlusconi would set about marshalling his forces in the Senate to ensure he was not removed from parliament.
But some pundits noted that it wasn't a foregone conclusion that he could win a Senate vote on whether he should leave parliament. If sufficient numbers of left-wing senators voted with Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, then Mr Berlusconi could be in trouble.
Mr Berlusconi is also defending himself against criminal charges in the “Rubygate” case in which he is accused of paying for sex with an under-aged prostitute and abuse of office. That trial is scheduled to resume May 13.
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