, ROME, Aug 1 – A verdict loomed on Thursday for former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in a tax fraud case that could upset a fragile ruling coalition in the eurozone’s third largest economy.
A panel of judges at Italy’s top court will rule on whether to uphold a temporary ban from parliament and one year of community service or house arrest for the billionaire tycoon.
The case revolves around Berlusconi’s business empire Mediaset — the starting point for his first foray into politics in the early 1990s.
His tumultuous career has been constantly dogged by legal troubles which he says are politically motivated attacks by left-wing prosecutors.
Security was beefed up in Rome outside the courtroom and Berlusconi’s residence, with several riot police vans seen parked nearby.
There have been reports of possible protests planned by both pro- and anti-Berlusconi activists, whichever way the ruling goes.
Even if Berlusconi’s conviction is upheld, the sentence cannot be implemented until the Senate votes to lift his parliamentary immunity — a process that could take several months.
The current trial is Berlusconi’s second and final appeal in the case, which first went to trial in 2006, and concerns the purchase of television distribution rights for films.
If he loses, this will be his first definitive conviction since all past rulings against him have either been overturned or the charges have expired due to Italy’s slow justice system.
He is also appealing convictions in other cases for having sex with an underage prostitute, abusing his prime ministerial powers and leaking a police wiretap to damage a political rival.
Prosecutors have also filed charges alleging he bribed a senator to join his ranks in a move that helped bring down the government in 2008.
“I haven’t slept for a month. I wake up at night and stare at the ceiling, thinking about what they’ve done to me,” the media magnate said in an interview with Libero newspaper on Sunday.
“I will not go into exile. Nor will I accept being entrusted to social services, like a criminal who has to be reeducated,” he said.
Former prime minister Bettino Craxi, one of Berlusconi’s mentors, fled to Tunisia in the early 1990s after being put under investigation and was convicted of corruption in absentia.
But Berlusconi sounded bullish about his chances.
“I am quite optimistic, they cannot find me guilty. I was the prime minister (at the time of the alleged crime), what could I possibly have known about contracts for television rights?”
Analysts said there was a possibility the supreme court could decide to uphold part of the conviction and send the rest of the case back to the appeal courts for yet another trial.
Any new trial would likely see the charges expire before it can conclude as the statute of limitations for the case kicks in next year.
Stefano Folli, a columnist for the Il Sole 24 Ore business daily, said a fresh trial could be a “compromise” solution that would limit the fallout for the grand coalition government.
Berlusconi has said there should be no effect on the government even if he is convicted but diehard supporters are threatening to resign from parliament — a move that could trigger fresh elections in the crisis-hit country.