Silvio Berlusconi sentenced for tax fraud

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File photo of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 26 October 2012Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Silvio Berlusconi stepped down as Italian prime minister in November

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been handed a jail sentence and barred from office after being found guilty of tax fraud.

The Milan court sentenced him to four years but later cut it to one year because of an amnesty law.

Mr Berlusconi condemned the sentence as "intolerable judicial harassment". He will remain free pending appeals.

He and others were accused of buying US film rights at inflated prices via two offshore companies under his control.

It is the first time Mr Berlusconi - who has faced a number of trials - has been convicted of any crime concerning his business activities.

He has in the past either been cleared, or cases have run beyond the judicial time limit.

In 1997 he received a suspended sentence for false book-keeping but that conviction was reversed on appeal.

In the case for which he was sentenced on Friday, prosecutors argued that part of the money declared for the purchase of film rights was skimmed off to create illegal slush funds, reducing tax liabilities for Mr Berlusconi's Mediaset group.

The court handed Mr Berlusconi a longer sentence than the three years and eight months requested by prosecutors. However, it later announced that the sentence would be cut to one year due to a 2006 amnesty law aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.

It ordered him and his co-defendants to pay 10m euros (£8m) in damages and banned him from holding public office for three years.

Both the jail term and the ban would only take effect if the sentence is upheld by a higher court, Italian news agency Ansa reported.

"It is a political, incredible and intolerable judgement," Mr Berlusconi said on Italia 1 - one of the TV stations he owns.

Media caption,
Italian Senator Paolo Guzzanti: "Right now Berlusconi is a condemned man by an Italian judge"

"It is without any doubt a political verdict just as all the cases invented against me are political."

In all, 11 people were on trial.

Three were acquitted including Mediaset chairman Fedele Confalonieri, a close associate of Mr Berlusconi, and four were cleared because the statute of limitations had run out.

The three others convicted alongside the former prime minister included Hollywood producer Frank Agrama, who received a three-year sentence.

The trial began six years ago and has been subject to repeated delays, in part because of an immunity law that protected Mr Berlusconi while he was prime minister.

Sex case

The BBC's David Willey in Rome says Mr Berlusconi is unlikely ever to serve his sentence as the conviction first has to be confirmed by two successive courts of appeal.

The appeals could take years, he adds.

In February a court threw out a corruption case against him after the statute of limitations had expired.

He is also currently on trial charged with paying for sex with an underage girl and trying to cover it up. He denies any wrongdoing.

Mr Berlusconi, 76, has dominated Italian politics for most of the past 20 years.

Media caption,
There was mixed reaction on the streets of Rome to the verdict

He was forced to resign as the prime minister of a centre-right coalition last November, and recently said he had no plans to stand again in elections due next year.

He has repeatedly claimed that he is a victim of persecution by a left-wing judiciary.

Mr Berlusconi is not the first Italian prime minister to be convicted of a crime.

Bettino Craxi, a socialist who helped Mr Berlusconi to build his media empire, fled the country in 1994 to avoid imprisonment in a corruption trial and died in exile in Tunisia.