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Profile: Silvio Berlusconi, Italian ex-prime minister

09 May 14 11:21
Silvio Berlusconi in the Italian Senate, 2 October 2013

After years of successfully brushing off sex scandals, allegations of corruption and political setbacks, Silvio Berlusconi's luck finally ran out when he was convicted of tax fraud in 2013.

Berlusconi, 77, was sentenced to four years in prison and ejected from his seat in the Senate.

That prison term was converted into a year of community service, which he is serving at a care home near Milan, because of his age.

And he has been sentenced separately to seven years for having sex with an under-age prostitute and abuse of power. This is currently being appealed.

Before the Senate vote, Berlusconi's political career took a hard knock when his centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party split over support for the coalition government led by centre-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta, and he opted to move into opposition.

It is a rum predicament for a man who, many Italians had come to think, was untouchable.


But he still has plenty of supporters, many of whom see the three-time Italian prime minister as the victim of a left-wing conspiracy, and he has a history of fighting back from the most unpromising situations.

Berlusconi remains one of Italy's richest men. He and his family have built a fortune estimated at $6.2bn (£3.8bn; 4.6bn euros) by US business magazine Forbes.

Born on 29 September 1936, Berlusconi began his career selling vacuum cleaners and built a reputation as a crooner in nightclubs and on cruise ships.

He graduated in law in 1961 and then set up Edilnord, a construction company, establishing himself as a residential housing developer around his native Milan.

Ten years later he launched a local cable-television outfit - Telemilano - which would grow into Italy's biggest media empire, Mediaset, controlling the country's three largest private TV stations.

His huge Fininvest holding company now has Mediaset, Italy's largest publishing house Mondadori, the daily newspaper Il Giornale, AC Milan football club and dozens of other companies under its umbrella.

Forza Italia

In 1993, Berlusconi founded his own political party, Forza Italia - Go Italy - named after a chant used by Italian football fans.

The following year he became prime minister, forming a coalition with the right-wing National Alliance and Northern League.

Many hoped his business acumen could help revitalise Italy's economy. They longed for a break with the corruption and instability which had marred Italian politics for a decade.

But rivalries between the three coalition leaders, coupled with Berlusconi's indictment for alleged tax fraud by a Milan court, confounded those hopes and led to the collapse of the government just seven months later.

He lost the 1996 election to the left-wing Romano Prodi but by 2001 he was back in power, in coalition once more with his former partners.

Having headed the longest-serving Italian government since World War 2, he was again defeated by Mr Prodi in 2006.

He returned to office in 2008 at the helm of a revamped party, renamed the PDL.

His support drained away in 2011, as the country's borrowing costs rocketed at the height of the eurozone debt crisis, and he resigned after losing his parliamentary majority.

Initially his party supported the technocratic government of Mario Monti and his reform programme.

But in December 2012, his PDL withdrew its backing, forcing an early election.

In February 2013, he showed he had not lost his touch when he closed a huge gap to come within 1% of winning a general election - close enough to play a part in the governing coalition.

But after an uncomfortable period when the PDL backed Mr Letta's government, the party split and Berlusconi relaunched it under the old name, Forza Italia.

Legal battles

Berlusconi, a native of Milan, has frequently complained that he is being victimised by the city's legal authorities.

He has been accused of embezzlement, tax fraud and false accounting, and attempting to bribe a judge, but he has always denied wrongdoing.

In 2009, Berlusconi estimated that over 20 years he had made 2,500 court appearances in 106 trials, at a legal cost of 200m euros.

His government passed reforms shortening the statute of limitations for fraud, but part of a 2010 law granting him and other senior ministers temporary immunity was struck down by the Constitutional Court, which left the decision up to individual trial judges.

Numerous times he has been acquitted, had convictions overturned or seen them expire under the statute of limitations.

In October 2012, however, he was given four years for tax fraud and barred from office. The sentence was reduced to one year under a general amnesty.

In August 2013 his final appeal was turned down by Italy's highest court, and he is currently serving the sentence.

Because he is over 75 years old, the court reduced the prison sentence to house arrest or community service, but it still stands as Berlusconi's first definitive conviction.

He chose community service rather than house arrest, which has allowed him to lead Forza Italia in the European elections.

He is spending his community service working four hours a week with elderly dementia patients at a Catholic care home near to Milan.

In March 2013 he was sentenced to a year in jail, subject to appeal, for involvement in the leaking of a police wiretap to a newspaper run by his brother.

The BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome says there is no real prospect of Mr Berlusconi going to jail over the wiretap case, but the conviction is another very serious blow to his reputation.

Berlusconi's women

Berlusconi's political struggles have been accompanied by a string of lascivious reports in the Italian press about his private life.

These have culminated in his conviction for paying for sex with an under-age prostitute.

It emerged in October 2010 that Mr Berlusconi had called a police station asking for the release of a 17-year-old girl, Karima "Ruby" El Mahroug.

She was being held for theft and was also said to have attended Mr Berlusconi's so-called "bunga bunga" parties.

In June 2013 he was found guilty of paying her for sex, and of abuse of power. He is appealing against the underage sex conviction.

In May 2009, his second wife, Veronica Lario, said she was divorcing him after he was photographed at the 18th birthday party of an aspiring model, Noemi Letizia. She also accused him of selecting a "shamelessly trashy" list of candidates for the European parliament.

Berlusconi is paying the equivalent of $1.9m a month to her and their three children under a court settlement.

He has always maintained he is "no saint" but firmly denies having ever paid for sex with a woman, saying: "I never understood where the satisfaction is when you're missing the pleasure of conquest."

His turn of phrase has always delighted like-thinkers and horrified critics. In one of his most recent examples, he said his family was so persecuted they felt "like the families of Jews... under Hitler's regime". The remark drew condemnation from Italian Jews.

If the tycoon appears younger than his age, it is partly because of a hair transplant and plastic surgery.

But in November 2006, after his election defeat, he collapsed at a party rally.

He was later fitted with a pacemaker to regulate his heartbeat and said he needed to slow down.

In December 2009, he was assaulted in a street in Milan - hit in the face with a souvenir of Milan cathedral, by a mentally disturbed man. With a bloodied face and broken teeth, he got out of the car into which he had been bundled by security guards to show his defiance.

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