Former Italian PM Berlusconi convicted of tax fraud, given 4 years
Published Friday, October 26, 2012 10:45AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, October 26, 2012 11:22PM EDT
MILAN, Italy -- A court in Milan Friday convicted former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of tax fraud and sentenced the media mogul to four years in prison, his first prison sentence in years of criminal probes.
The 76-year-old billionaire businessman won't go to prison right away. In Italy, cases must pass two levels of appeal before the verdicts are final.
Berlusconi received a suspended sentence in 1997 for false bookkeeping, but that conviction was reversed on appeal. Other criminal investigation probes against him on charges including corruption had ended in acquittal or were thrown out for statute of limitations.
Earlier in the week, Berlusconi had announced he wouldn't run for a fourth term. He was forced to resign a year ago in Italy's debt crisis, wasn't in the courtroom. His lawyers declined to make immediate comment, but he is expected to appeal.
Berlusconi's designated political heir as the head of the centre-right party he leads, Angelino Alfano, blasted the verdict as "incomprehensible" and said he is confident an appeals court would throw out the conviction.
In this and other cases against him, Berlusconi has described himself as the innocent victim of prosecutors he contends sympathize with the left.
Berlusconi, along with other defendants convicted in the case, must deposit a total of C10 million ($13 million) into a court-ordered fund appeals, which could take years, proceed.
Prosecutors alleged that the defendants were behind a scheme to purchase the rights to broadcast U.S. movies on Berlusconi's private TV networks in his Mediaset empire through a series of offshore companies and had falsely declared the payments to avoid taxes.
A total of 11 people were on trial.
Three were acquitted, including a close associate of Berlusconi, Fedele Confalonieri, chairman of Mediaset. Berlusconi and three others were convicted, including a Hollywood producer, Frank Agrama, who received a three-year sentence.
Four defendants were cleared because statute of limitations had run out.
Berlusconi is not the first former Italian premier to be convicted of criminal charges.
Former Socialist Premier Bettino Craxi eluded an arrest warrant and turned up at his villa in Tunisia in 1994 after a court in Italy charged him in a massive corruption case. He was tried in absentia, convicted and sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison, never returned to Italy and died in exile. Craxi was considered Berlusconi's mentor thanks to his opening to private television in Italy from a state monopoly.
Former seven-time Christian Democrat premier , Giulio Andreotti, was convicted of involvement in a Mafia-murder. But he was cleared on appeal and never went to jail.
In the same courthouse on Friday, another criminal trial against Berlusconi was held. He is charged in that case with paying for sex with an under-age woman and trying to cover it up. He denies wrongdoing.