June 24 (Bloomberg) -- Silvio Berlusconi, the 76-year-old billionaire and former Italian prime minister, was found guilty by a Milan court of paying a minor for sex and abusing the power of his office. He was sentenced to seven years although he is unlikely to ever spend a day in jail.
Berlusconi was also given a lifetime ban from public office, Judge Giulia Turri said in the Milan courtroom after a two-year trial. The ruling doesn’t become binding until the end of the appeals process, which could take months or years, and even if the sentence were enforced, it may involve house arrest due to his age. Turri urged prosecutors to seek perjury charges against more than 30 witnesses in the case.
The verdict was Berlusconi’s third criminal conviction in eight months. It may exacerbate tension within the make-shift coalition supporting Prime Minister Enrico Letta. The two-month-old government depends on Berlusconi loyalists as well as lawmakers who have opposed the ex-premier since his entry into politics 20 years ago.
“Letta’s going to have to fight very hard to keep his boat on course,” said James Walston, a professor at the American University in Rome. The ruling “makes the Berlusconi supporters all the more hyped up and angry, and they’re going to be a lot tougher on completely irrelevant issues.”
The conviction today comes even after Karima El Mahroug, the woman at the center of the case, denied that she had sex with Berlusconi. The former premier has said he gave her 57,000 euros ($75,000) to help her set up a business and avoid prostituting herself. The abuse of power charge stems from a telephone call Berlusconi allegedly made as premier in 2010 to help secure her release from police custody.
The verdict “confirms the intention to eliminate Prime Minister Berlusconi from the political scene,” Paolo Bonaiuti, a senator and spokesman for Berlusconi, said in an e-mailed statement. Berlusconi’s lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said the ruling is “illogical” in comments broadcast by SkyTG24 and announced he will appeal the conviction.
Shares in Mediaset SpA, the broadcasting company, founded and controlled by Berlusconi, fell 5.3 percent to 2.392 euros.
Berlusconi reiterated his support for the government last week after being dealt a setback in an unrelated case. On June 19, Italy’s Constitutional Court rejected a procedural challenge related to Berlusconi’s October conviction for tax fraud. Maurizio Gasparri, a People of Liberty leader in the Senate, said that while he wouldn’t play politics with the decision, “we can’t pretend like nothing happened, either.”
“The subordination of politics to judicial order would be grave and unacceptable,” Gasparri said in the statement, e-mailed on June 20.
Letta’s ability to rely on support from Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party is being tested by trials set to continue into next year. Party leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano, have reiterated their loyalty to Berlusconi and equated their efforts to protect him from the courts with their responsibility to defend democracy in Italy.
Berlusconi was convicted in March in a wiretapping case related to the 2006 battle for control of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro SpA. That verdict, which carries a one-year prison sentence, is up for appeal.
Berlusconi’s trials may pose a greater threat to his political career than to his freedom, given Italy’s flexible sentencing and indulgence toward convicts over the age of 70. The tax-fraud conviction, upheld on appeal last month, carries a four-year prison sentence and five-year ban from public office. The final appeal for that case, involving Berlusconi’s Mediaset SpA, is underway, Radiocor has reported.
Letta, 46, and his Democratic Party were thrown together with Berlusconi’s People of Liberty, or PDL, in April to resolve a two-month government impasse. The rival forces, which alternated stints in power for two decades, were forced to team up after losing consensus in the February general election. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, the biggest opposition force, won a quarter of the votes by taking support from both parties.
“I don’t think that political death for this government will come at the hand of Berlusconi,” said Francesco Galietti, founder of Rome-based public-policy analysis firm Policy Sonar. “No one has the force to rule alone, or even the willingness to rule alone.”
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