Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was convicted today in a Milan court for tax fraud and sentenced to four years in jail and a five-year ban from public office.
Speaking tersely by phone on one of the TV channels he owns, he called the sentence "political, incredible and intolerable."
Prosecutors argued that Berlusconi and the other 10 defendants on trial were all involved in purchasing rights to broadcast U.S, movies on Berlusconi's Mediaset private TV networks through a series of offshore companies and had avoided paying Italian taxes by falsely declaring the amounts paid.
However the 76-year-old media tycoon will not be going to jail anytime soon. In Italy, two further appeals are needed for the sentence to be final, which could take years to go through the Italian courts. His ban from public and company offices will also not go into effect until the sentence is declared final. The statute of limitations in this case runs out next year.
Berlusconi was convicted today along with three other of the defendants including a Hollywood producer, Frank Agrama. Three other defendants were acquitted, including Fedele Confalonieri, chairman of Mediaset, and a close associate and mentor to Berlusconi. Four defendants were cleared because the statute of limitations had run out.
The judges will have to file a written document explaining the reasons for their decision in the next few months.
Berlusconi was not in court today when the sentence was read. His defense lawyers immediately declared they were appealing.
His lawyers Piero Longo and Niccolo Ghedini said the court's decision was "totally divorced from any legal logic." Berlusconi said on TV that "if you can't count on impartial judges in a country, the country becomes uncivil, barbarian and unlivable and stops being a democracy. It's sad, but the situation of our country today is that way."
The designated leader of his center-right political party and present party leader Angelino Alfano was quoted by Italian news agency ANSA as saying, ''It is the umpteenth demonstration that there is a campaign of judicial attacks on Silvio Berlusconi,... we are certain that the next levels of justice will show we are right (about Berlusconi?s innocence) and we hope that these judgments will arrive quickly."
Other politicians, who support Berlusconi and his party have already criticized the sentence. Francesco Storace, a right-wing politician was quoted as saying, "I am sad for Berlusconi. He has been an important part of the history of this country, he does not deserve this court persecution whatever you think of him."
Berlusconi, who was forced to leave public office in November 2011 because of the country's dire economic situation, has continued to be in the news since then making political comments and publicly toying with the possibility that he would return to lead his party in the next elections. He publicly announced in a video message just two days ago that he would not run for a fourth term as leader in the next national elections, which have yet to be called but are expected next spring,
Berlusconi has been dogged by a variety of criminal court cases since he entered politics in 1994. In endless legal investigations and marathon trials he has been accused of a range of alleged crimes: fraud, tax evasion, false testimony, corruption, violation of anti-trust laws, drug-trafficking, mafia-ties and most recently for having allegedly paid for sex with an underage woman.
He has always denied wrongdoing and has often vociferously defended himself saying he is the victim of persecution by what he calls the "left-wing judges" who he believes control the courts ? especially the Milan court, where most of his cases have been heard.
He told a party rally that he had paid "billions" to defend himself in the courts. So far, four convictions have either been overturned on appeal or dropped due to the statute of limitations.
Shares in Berlusconi's media empire, Mediaset, dropped sharply on the Milan's stock market Friday with the news of his conviction.
Earlier today in Milan, there was another hearing in the so-called "Ruby" case in which Berlusconi is being accused of allegedly paying for sex with an underage woman nicknamed "Ruby" and trying to cover it up.
He rarely appears in court but in his last appearance at this trial earlier this month he again denied the accusations saying he "never had intimate relations of any kind" with Ruby or any of his female guests at the "bunga bunga" parties held at his private homes. Instead he said these gatherings were just innocent fun in which he "monopolized attention singing, talking about sports, politics and gossip."
Berlusconi is not the first former Italian prime minister to be convicted of criminal charges in recent history. Former Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi died in "exile" in Tunisia in 2000 after a court in Italy sentenced him to a jail sentence for corruption.
Giulio Andreotti, a Christian-Democrat leader who lead seven governments over the years, was convicted of involvement in a Mafia-murder, but then cleared in appeal. Neither of these ever spent any time in jail.