Berlusconi conviction could trip Italy's ruling coalition

Silvio BerlusconiA ruling by Italy's supreme court upholding a tax fraud conviction against former premier and centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi could end up tripping up the country's fragile ruling coalition.

Just three months following centre-left prime minister Enrico Letta assuming office as the head of an uneasy coalition with Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL), Italy, the third-largest economy in the euro zone, was again mired in uncertainty.

The 76-year-old billionaire, in an angry response to decision by the supreme court to reject a final appeal against his conviction, vehemently protested his innocence and accused magistrates of persecuting him since his entry into politics 20 years ago.

The ruling, confirmed a sentence for tax fraud involving inflated invoices at his Mediaset broadcasting empire, comes as the first definitive sentence awarded to him after dozens of previous trials on charges ranging from tax to sex offences.

"No one can understand the real violence which has been directed against me," he said in a video message broadcast on Italian television after the verdict. "A genuine campaign of aggression that has no equal," he said.

Berlusconi, however is unlikely to serve any time in jail due to his age. The supreme court has also ordered part of the original sentence, imposing a ban on holding political office, to be reviewed. The ruling, though comes as an unprecedented blow to a man who has been the face of Italian politics for two decades

Berlusconi, though remains defiant, if shaken and in a nine-minute video address, he denounced the sentence as "absolutely" baseless, saying it deprived him of his freedom and political rights. He insisted, he was the innocent victim of "an incredible series of accusations and trials that had nothing to do with reality."

Berlusconi however, has no intentions of quitting politics and has pledged to revive Forza Italia, the movement he founded and which swept him into power as the unchallenged leader of Italy's conservatives.

Judge Antonio Esposito, while reading the decision of the court in the name of the Italian people, declared Berlusconi's conviction and prison term "irrevocable."

However, three years of his sentence would be reduced as part of a general amnesty for crimes committed before 2006 aimed at easing prison crowding. Also elderly defendants are usually allowed to serve out their sentences under house confinement.

Also, he is expected to be able to opt for a year of public service in lieu of confinement, a common option for first-time offenders with short sentences.

The much awaited decision adds to pressure on premier Enrico Letta's fragile coalition government, which is dependent on support from Berlusconi's forces and his own centre-left Democratic Party to pass much needed reforms to restore market confidence in Italy and lift it out of recession.