Italy's ex-PM Berlusconi gets 7-yr sentence in sex scandal

Silvio BerlusconiItaly's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to seven years in jail and banned from public office by a lower court in Milan for having sex with an underage prostitute, and abuse of power in covering it up.

But Berlusconi remains a free man while he appeals against the ruling; and reports say he is unlikely to go to jail anytime soon. Eventually he may even escape prison because of lenient sentencing rules for people over the age of 70.

After a trial that lasted more than two years, the 76-year-old billionaire and media tycoon was on Monday found guilty by a panel of three female judges. But in Italy's three-tier court system, Monday's sentence will only come into effect if it is upheld by two other courts after a lengthy appeals process.

Both the 76-year-old Berlusconi and the Moroccan woman concerned, Karima El Mahroug, deny they had sex.

"I intend to resist this persecution because I am absolutely innocent," Berlusconi said after the verdict.

He is already embroiled in several other court cases. In October 2012 he was given a four-year sentence for tax fraud, which is also under appeal.

This latest verdict ends a two-year trial which has frequently made the headlines, with its allegations of topless women and erotic party games.

Berlusconi was convicted of paying for sex with El Mahroug, known as "Ruby the Heart Stealer", in 2010, when she was 17.

He was also found guilty of abusing the powers of his office by arranging to have El Mahroug released from police custody when she was detained in a separate petty theft case.

El Mahroug was one of a group of women invited to Berlusconi's private residence for so-called "bunga-bunga" party evenings.

Berlusconi insists the alleged sex parties were actually dinners where female guests performed "burlesque" dancing.

The prosecution said the women were part of a prostitution system set up for his personal sexual satisfaction.

Although frequenting prostitutes is not a crime in Italy, having sex with one who is under the age of 18 is an offence punishable by a prison sentence.

The sentence imposed by the Milan court is one more year than the six-year term demanded by the prosecution.

As soon as he heard the verdict, Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini announced an appeal.

"This is beyond reality," Ghedini told reporters outside the court. "The judges even went beyond the prosecutors' request."

The judgement could have major political repercussions for Italy, analysts say.

The guilty ruling could weaken current Prime Minister Enrico Letta's coalition government, which depends on the support of Berlusconi's centre-right party, People of Freedom (PdL).

Despite Berlusconi's statements of loyalty to Mr Letta, many analysts believe he could withdraw his support if he decides the government is not giving him enough protection.