Fears Berlusconi jail ruling could plunge Italy into crisis
Italy's supreme court has begun hearing Silvio Berlusconi's last appeal against a jail sentence and ban from public office in a case which could endanger the country's shaky coalition government if the conviction is confirmed.
On the first day of the hearing, public prosecutor Antonello Mura rejected most of Mr Berlusconi's arguments that a lower appeal court verdict convicting him of tax fraud was flawed, but requested a reduction of his ban from public office to three years from five on technical legal grounds.
He asked the five supreme court judges to confirm a one-year jail term for Mr Berlusconi.
The court is expected to hear counter-arguments from the four-times prime minister's defence team today, with a verdict expected by tomorrow.
If the court rejects Mr Berlusconi's appeal it will be the first definitive conviction for the media mogul in dozens of court cases and mark the end of two decades in which he has dominated politics through his media power and political skill.
It could also plunge the government – an uneasy coalition of Enrico Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and Mr Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) – into crisis and bring renewed uncertainty to the eurozone's third-largest economy, with potential fallout right across the bloc.
Moderate politicians have urged the court to delay the ruling until September for the sake of political stability.
The 76-year-old media magnate is making his final appeal against the jail sentence and ban from office handed down by lower courts for the fraudulent purchase of broadcasting rights by his Mediaset media empire. Three other people were also convicted in the case.If definitively convicted, Mr Berlusconi would not normally go to prison because of his age but would have to do community service or serve his sentence at home.Mr Berlusconi has accused left-wing magistrates of abusing their powers to try to bring him down in more than two dozen court cases since he stormed to power for the first time in 1994.
The case was fast-tracked to be heard by a special summer session of the supreme court to avoid part of any sentence being annulled by the statute of limitations.
Although they are waiting for a signal from Mr Berlusconi, PDL hawks have called for everything from a mass resignation of the party's government ministers to blocking Italy's motorways if the court rules against him.
The departure of Mr Berlusconi from parliament if he is convicted would also raise major questions about the future of his party, which depends on his charisma and wealth.But a greater risk to the government could come from Mr Letta's faction-ridden PD, with many members already deeply unhappy about being in a coalition with their old enemy. Some may refuse to continue if he is found guilty.