Thursday 19 April 2018

Four years for Berlusconi but he'll never go to prison

Nick Squires Rome

SILVIO Berlusconi has been condemned as a man with a "natural capacity for crime" by a Milan court which handed him a four-year prison sentence for tax fraud.

The former Italian prime minister's sentence was almost immediately reduced to one year under a 2006 amnesty law designed to reduce prison overcrowding, but it included a five-year ban on holding public office which could deter him from continuing his long and controversial political career.

Given Mr Berlusconi's record of beating the legal clock and winning appeals, the 76-year-old politician and media tycoon is unlikely to spend time behind bars in the near future, if at all. His indignant lawyers said they would appeal.

Despite years of legal battles, the proceedings at the court in Milan amounted to one of the more humiliating episodes Mr Berlusconi has faced.

Judge Edoardo d'Avossa pronounced that between 2000 and 2003 there had been "a very significant amount of tax evasion" and "an incredible mechanism of fraud" in place around the buying and selling of broadcasting rights for Mr Berlusconi's Mediaset television company. The court's written ruling said he showed a "natural capacity for crime".

Mr Berlusconi, one of Italy's richest men, became prime minister for a second time in 2001 in a landslide victory.

But he remained effectively in charge of Mediaset even though he had handed over control of day-to-day operations, the court said. In a theatrical response granted to his own television channel, Mr Berlusconi condemned the sentence as "intolerable judicial harassment".

He said: "If you can't count on impartial judges in a country, the country becomes uncivil and barbarian and stops being a democracy."

Shielded

Denouncing the verdict as "incredible", his defence lawyers, Piero Longo and Niccolo Ghedini, said: "It is to be hoped that in the appeals court there will be a different atmosphere."

Mr Berlusconi is entitled to two levels of appeal.

The court found that he and 10 co-defendants were behind a scheme by Mediaset to buy the rights to broadcast American films on his private television networks through a series of offshore companies and had falsely declared the payments to avoid taxes. Prosecutors said they inflated the price for the television rights of 3,000 films as they re-licensed them internally to Mr Berlusconi's networks, pocketing the difference that amounted to €250m.

The trial began in July 2006, but was put on hold by a now defunct immunity law that shielded Mr Berlusconi from prosecution while premier.

The initial sentence was heavier than the three years and eight months requested by prosecutors, and was the longest of the four Mr Berlusconi has received so far in a career dogged by marathon legal battles. The verdict came two days after he announced he will not run in forthcoming elections, which are expected to be held in April.

He stepped down last November after Italy came under mounting pressure to deal with its high debts and he failed to come up with persuasive financial reforms.

Mr Berlusconi's legal woes began even before he was elected to the first of his three terms as premier in 1994.

He has been tried numerous times for his business dealings as head of Mediaset and AC Milan football club. His lawyer last year claimed he had been called to appear at more than 2,500 hearings involving around 100 cases.

He has always denied wrongdoing and alleged the cases were politically motivated. In each to date, he has been cleared or seen the statute of limitations expire. The statute of limitations in the Mediaset case is set to terminate next year.

The former premier is also on trial in Milan on charges of paying for sex with an alleged underage prostitute nicknamed Ruby the Heart Stealer and trying to cover it up through an abuse of office. He again denies the allegations.

In the latest hearing yesterday in the sex trial, which began more than a year ago, Mr Berlusconi's doctor said he had advised the then prime minister to avoid too much "excitement" at the gatherings, to which dozens of aspiring actresses and showgirls were invited.

But Alberto Zangrillo insisted he had never witnessed "moments of a sexual nature" nor "girls in skimpy clothing" at the so-called bunga bunga parties. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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