taly’s former premier Silvio Berlusconi has been jailed for four years for tax fraud.
Berlusconi and others were accused of masterminding a scheme to illegally inflate the price paid for television rights of thousands of U.S. movies via offshore companies under his control.
He was then accused of siphoning off part of the money – worth over £250 million – to create illegal slush funds.
However, the 76-year-old billionaire businessman, who was among 11 defendants on trial, 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.
The conviction was the media mogul’s first in a career seemingly dogged by criminal probes and trials that have all ended in acquittal or were thrown out after time ran out to prosecute.
Just last week, he appeared in the same courthouse for another trial in which he is accused of paying for sex with an under-age teenager and then trying to cover it up.
But today, the media mogul wasn’t in the courtroom for the verdict, which comes two days after he announced he will not run in Italy’s upcoming elections.
Prosecutors allege the defendants were behind a scheme to purchase the rights to broadcast U.S. movies on Berlusconi’s private television networks through a series of offshore companies and had falsely declared the payments to avoid taxes.
Prosecutors further alleged the inflated the price for the TV rights of some 3,000 films as they relicensed them internally to Berlusconi’s networks, pocketing the difference amounting to around €250million (£200million).
The three-time premier stepped down last November after Italy came under mounting market pressure to deal with its high debt load and Berlusconi failed to come up with persuasive financial reforms.
Berlusconi’s designated political heir as the head of the center-right party he leads, Angelino Alfano, blasted the verdict Friday as ‘incomprehensible’ and said he was 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.
Up until now, other criminal investigation probes against him on charges including corruption had ended in acquittal or were thrown out for statute of limitations.
Of the other defendants, 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, along with other defendants convicted in the case, must deposit a total of €10 million (£8million) into a court-ordered fund as appeals, which could take years, proceed.
The trial began in July 2006, but was put on hold by a now-defunct immunity law that shielded the Berlusconi from prosecution while he was premier until it was watered down by the constitutional court. The trial also faced delays as Berlusconi cited conflicts with his schedule as premier.
Berlusconi has been tried numerous times for his business dealings.
He has always denied wrongdoing and alleged that the cases were politically motivated.
In each case to date, he has been cleared or seen the statute of limitations expire.
The statute of limitations in this case is set to expire sometime next year. In Italy, cases must pass two levels of appeal before the verdicts are final.
Berlusconi also is on trial in Milan on charges of paying for sex with an under-age teenager and trying to cover it up.
Appearing in court ast Friday, he said he believed the then 17-year-old dancer, Karima ‘Ruby the Heartstealer’ El Mahroug, was really 24 when he was alleged to have paid her for sex in 2010.
Mr Berlusconi told the court that ‘nothing vulgar or scandalous’ had ever occurred during parties at his villa in Acore, and that the now notorious phrase ‘bunga bunga’ stemmed from a joke someone had made.
He said prosecution claims that the evenings were orgies in which he paid prostitutes dressed as nuns to perform strip shows had been made up to discredit him.
He also denied having had sex with Miss El Mahroug, who is Moroccan, or any of the guests at his parties, adding: ‘Everything happened in front of staff and, at times, my children came in to say “hello”‘.
But several guests have already testified how strippers performed and money was exchanged for sex. Mr Berlusconi also insisted he was innocent of abuse of office.
Prosecutors say he lied to the police in May 2010, telling them Miss El Mahroug was the granddaughter of the then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in order to have her released after she was held for suspected theft.
The list of witnesses named by Berlusconi are a roll call of the rich and famous and are said to have been guests at one of Mr Berlusconi’s parties.