Prison for Berlusconi? Don't Bet On It
Despite an Italian court ruling that the country's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi should go to prison and be barred from public office, the leader of the center-right bloc is expected to once again dodge Italy's legal system.
On Wednesday, an appeals court in Milan upheld a four-year sentence for tax fraud and reinstated a five-year ban from public office that Berlusconi was given in October.
The 76-year-old billionaire politician and media mogul was accused of tax fraud in connection with the purchase of broadcasting rights by his television network Mediaset. Berlusconi denies the charges and his lawyers have argued repeatedly that the judges in Milan are biased against the former premier.
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"The weight of the verdict has gone beyond the weight of the facts," said Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo' Ghedini. "We were aware that the ruling would end up this way."
Berlusconi is expected to appeal against the judgement to Italy's highest court, the Court of Cassation, but by then the case could have expired under a legal time limit, meaning that the likelihood of Berlusconi going to jail is slim.
However, one professor of Italian politics and culture at the University College of London (UCL) said that "the net is closing in on Berlusconi."
"Berlusconi won't go to jail because of this but he could be banned from office. He only has this one last appeal and if found guilty, his political career would be over...He's got good lawyers but it's not impossible that this could be the end of his political career," John Foot told CNBC.
The Mediaset case has been fraught with legal wrangling and obstacles since it was first brought against Berlusconi in 2006. The case was suspended in 2008 after Berlusconi became prime minister and a law was introduced which gave him immunity while in office – a law which was later revoked.
The trial was put on hold again in 2010 and restarted in February 2011. Last October, he was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to four years in jail, which had been reduced to one year because of his age. On Wednesday, the court upheld the original four-year sentence.
Berlusconi 'Could Bring Down Government'
The court's judgment is a blow to Berlusconi's center-right People of liberty (PdL) party and poses a threat to Italy's fragile coalition government, of which the PDL makes up a major part. The Pdl's party secretary Angelino Alfano is deputy prime minister and interior minister in Prime Minister Enrico Letta's government.
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Berlusconi's lawyer dismissed fears that the verdict could destabilize Italy's government, which was formed after two months of political wrangling, saying that "rights" were at stake, not the government.
"I don't think there's any correlation between the two. Rather, this sentence puts the stability of rights at risk," Ghedini told La Repubblica newspaper on Wednesday. He added that he was confident the Court of Cassation would throw out the conviction.
Giovanni Orsina, professor of Italian history at the Luiss-Guido Carli University in Rome and author of a forthcoming book entitled "Berlusconism", told CNBC on Thursday that Berlusconi has proved many times in the past that he's hard to get rid off.
"Remember when Berlusconi resigned and then came back - It was politically grave for him the last time and he came back again. This time, the only thing that matters is whether he is expelled from political office," Orsina said.
"The government is very fragile now but there is no other alternative. It's very hard to say whether Berlusconi could decide to bring the government down or could decide to sustain it," he added.
Despite Berlusconi's alleged peccadilloes (he is also facing charges of paying for sex with a minor and arranging the illegal wire-tapping of a political rival) a number of prominent party members signaled their continuing support for him on Wednesday.
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The PdL's house whip (charged with keeping the party in order) Renato Brunetta called the ruling "a disgusting outrage" motivated by politics.
UCL's John Foot said there were "massive ramifications" for the government. "His party is like a personal party and they [its members] have been incredibly loyal for a long time. He's not going to give in easily. If he's banned from office, he won't go quietly."
Berlusconi would not have to renounce his leadership of the PdL party if found guilty for the third and final time in the Court of Cassation.
"He could still be the party leader even after being banned from public office as leading a party is not the same," Orsina said.
"In all intents and purposes, the party is him. A lot of its members would be doing nothing if it wasn't for their place in it, he gives them strength and political visibility so they remain loyal to him. We'll have to wait and see what Berlusconi decides to do if he is convicted."
-By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt