MILAN -- A court in Milan Friday convicted former Premier 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 is expected to remain free until the appeals process is exhausted. 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.
For nearly 20 years, Berlusconi has dominated the Italian political scene, but his star began to lose its glitter after a recent sex scandal that has pushed him into another trial in the same courthouse, and amid the European debt crisis that effectively forced him out of office last November.
Earlier in the week, Berlusconi had announced he wouldn't run for a fourth term, leaving his center right party under pressure to find another charismatic figure before next spring's election.
Berlusconi wasn't in the courtroom. In a statement, his lawyers denounced the verdict as `'absolutely incredible," and said they would appeal.
Berlusconi's designated political heir as the head of the center-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 (EURO)10 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 other trial playing out in the Milan courthouse, Berlusconi is charged in that case with paying for sex with an underage woman and trying to cover it up. He denies wrongdoing.