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Silvio Berlusconi convicted in Italy of tax fraud

Associated Press Modified: October 26, 2012 at 2:47 pm •  Published: October 26, 2012
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MILAN (AP) — Just two days after announcing he won't run in spring elections, former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to four years in prison Friday in a verdict that could see him barred from public office for five years.

Berlusconi, after dominating Italian politics for nearly two decades, has seen his power weakening in the last year as a sex scandal tarnished his image and he was forced to resign as premier after failing to convince financial markets that he could come up with convincing reforms to shield Italy from Europe's debt woes.

In the latest blow, the 76-year-old billionaire media mogul received the stiffest sentence among the four co-defendants convicted in a scheme that involved inflating the price his media empire paid for TV rights to U.S. movies and pocketing the difference. And the sentence was more than the three years and eight months sought by prosecutors.

The court, which began hearing the case in 2006, also said Berlusconi could not hold public office for five years or manage any company for three years, penalties that would take force only if the conviction is upheld on two levels of appeal.

In a statement, Berlusconi's lawyers condemned the verdict as "absolutely incredible," and said they would appeal. Berlusconi is expected to remain free while two levels of appeal are exhausted.

However, a corruption bill drafted by the technical government headed by Premier Mario Monti, who replaced Berlusconi, would bar anyone convicted at the trial level from seeking office.

Berlusconi denounced the conviction as "unreal" and the case as politically motivated —as he has the numerous charges against him mostly for business dealings since entering political life in 1994. Berlusconi stayed away from the Milan tribunal, where his lawyers on Friday were defending him in a separate courtroom on charges of having paid for sex with an underage Moroccan teen and trying to cover it up.

"It is a political conviction that I can define perfectly well as incredible and intolerable," Berlusconi said in a phone call to his Italia 1 private network Friday evening.

He denied that there was any connection between his decision to step aside and allow another center-right candidate to seek the premiership in spring elections.

"My lawyers and I never thought that such a conviction would be possible," Berlusconi said.

The court read its reasons for the conviction immediately in court, a rare occurrence given they have 90 days to write them. It was a sign that the judges want to speed the case along to the appellate level before the charges expire, sometime next year or early 2014.

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