Silvio Berlusconi remains defiant after court upholds conviction for tax fraud



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BRUSSELS, Belgium — Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had his conviction and four-year prison sentence upheld Wednesday.

The appeal court's ruling also bars the 76-year-old from holding public office for five years.

In October, he was convicted in a lower court for tax fraud after he was accused of inflating the price his Mediaset media empire paid for TV rights to US movies and pocketing the difference, charges he has always dismissed as politically motivated.

So have the prosecutors finally got Berlusconi this time? Don't bet on it.

He's planning to contest the verdict in Italy's supreme court and even if he exhausts all his appeal opportunities, Italy tends to be lenient with elderly felons. A 2006 law means that at most he'll only have serve one year of his four-year sentence, but few think the billionaire will ever see the inside of a prison cell.

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The legal troubles don't seem to put much of a dent in his political career, either.

Berlusconi was written off after his original conviction for tax fraud in October, plus the one-year sentence for illegally leaking a police wire tap to discredit a political opponent and the ongoing trial for paying a 17-year-old for sex.

Yet he bounced back to lead his party to a surprisingly strong second place in February's elections and secure it a key role in the coalition government.

Although banned from holding political office himself, it's clear Berlusconi pulls the strings in his conservative People of Freedom (PdL) party.

He's already put center-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta on notice that he'll being the government down if measures close to his heart – like abolishing an unpopular housing tax – are not pushed through.

Many Italians seem to accept Berlusconi's claim that he's an innocent victim of a left-wing conspiracy in the judicial system. Others harbor some respect for the furbizia (craftiness) of the media magnate who sits on a $6.2 billion fortune and has managed to get himself elected prime minister three times.

Berlusconi is expected to lead a mass demonstration by his party in protest at his "persecution" by magistrates on Saturday in the northern city of Brescia.

Party bigwigs rushed to his support after the court's ruling. "A disgusting outrage," was how Renato Brunetta, who leads the party in the lower house of parliament, described the verdict.

Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said he did not see any connection between the verdict and his client's support for the government.

But Berlusconi has been known to lash out at political opponents when he's under legal pressure, and it's hard to see this ruling making easier for left and right to work together as the coalition government struggles to pull Italy out of recession and mega-indebtedness.

According to a count by the Italian news agency, Ansa, Berlusconi has been tried some 30 times over the years and convicted three times before the latest case. The previous convictions were all either overturned on appeal or timed out due to the length of the appeal process.

Paul Ames contributed to this report from Brussels.