Berlusconi convicted of tax fraud, sentenced to four years in prison

It took ten years, but former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was convicted today of tax fraud and sentenced to four year in prison (although reduced to just one year under a 2006 amnesty law).

Italy’s appeals process is lengthy and complex, so there’s a very real possibility that Berlusconi’s conviction, already ten years in the making, will be overturned.  Although today’s tax fraud conviction is more serious than Berlusconi’s prior convictions, he’s evaded final justice in Italy before.  A perjury conviction in 1990 was set aside under a prior amnesty law and a conviction for illegal financing Berlusconi’s political party in 1997 was set aside after the statute of limitations expired before Berlusconi had exhausted his appeals.

For today, it seems very likely that the conviction will prevent Berlusconi from reversing course on his announcement, made earlier this week, that he will not seek to lead Italy’s center-right into the next general election, expected in April 2013.  It was thought that Berlusconi has enough money and control over Italy’s media to reverse his decision — and conceivably still could, although I think it’s now virtually impossible for Berlusconi to make anything like a successful comeback in time for 2013.

In addition to the tax fraud trial, Berlusconi remains in the crosshairs of various Italian prosecutors, including for abuse of power charges, such as the use of state flights for personal use and for printing wiretapped conversations.  Most sensationally, though, Berlusconi is being investigated for prostitution charges stemming from a sexual relationship with a Moroccan teenager, named ‘Ruby Rubacouri’ in the Italian media.  Generally, Berlusconi has become a laughingstock for the allegations of ‘bunga, bunga‘ parties while in office lavished on Italian VIPs featuring orgies with young women.

Ironically, notwithstanding the energy and time that Berlusconi’s various governments spent passing immunity laws designed to shield Berlusconi and his allies from prosecution in Italian courts, the 2006 amnesty law that would reduce Berlusconi’s sentence to just one year was passed by the center-right government of former prime minister Romano Prodi.

In brief, Berlusconi has been convicted for inflating the costs of certain TV rights by his media company, Mediaset, in order to offset his tax bill.  Essentially, at the time Berlusconi created his media empire in the late 1970s and 1980s, Italy featured only public television channels nation-wide.  In building his media empire, Berlusconi bought local stations and broadcast simultaneous content, essentially cobbling together many local channels with synchronized programming, thereby establishing Italy’s first private television networks.

As such, Berlusconi commanded an incredible amount of control over Italy’s media, from his first successful campaign in 1994, through today.

With the 2013 Italian election approaching, Berlusconi’s conviction is yet another blow for the Italian center-right.  His apparent withdrawal from active participation in Italian politics has made the outcome of those elections incredibly uncertain, with most Italians satisfied with the current government headed by technocratic reformer Mario Monti, who’s said he won’t run on his own behalf in the upcoming elections.  Berlusconi has hinted he might support the continuation of Monti’s government for a full term if the 2013 elections are inconclusive, and certainly most of Italy’s business elite prefer Monti to Berlusconi or any of the various leftist or populist alternatives.

Berlusconi’s center-right Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL, the People of Freedom) is likely to be led into the elections by Angelino Alfano, the 41-year-old Sicilian former justice minister who is seen as Berlusconi’s preferred successor.

Regional elections in Sicily are being held Sunday after the resignation of Sicilian regional president Rafaelle Lombardo in July.  Furthermore, early regional elections to be set in Lombardia soon, after Lombardy’s regional president Roberto Formigoni, a key Berlusconi ally, dissolved the regional legislature after a member of his government was arrested for buying votes from the Calabarian organized crime group, the ‘Ndrangheta.

The conviction follows the resignation earlier this year of Umberto Bossi as the leader of the northern separatist Lega Nord (Northern League) after a corruption scandal.  The Lega Nord has joined Berlusconi’s governing coalitions in the past.

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