Italy took a step forward yesterday in sentencing former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to four years in prison, later cut to one year, for tax fraud.
It engendered some surprise that the charges of buying US film rights at inflated prices through offshore companies to create slush funds and reduce tax for his media group had been made to stick. But any sense of relief at justice being done must await the outcome of two appeals.
That could take some time. The billionaire former Prime Minister's team of lawyers will try to spin the appeals out over three or four years. It is to be hoped the judiciary will ensure that, unlike previous cases, there is no escape via statute of limitation. Berlusconi has had continual struggles with the law, having been involved in about 100 cases since entering politics in 1993. Three previous convictions for corruption, false accounting and illicit financing of a political party were all either overturned on appeal or expired under the statute of limitations. He is currently also on trial for sex with an underage prostitute.
An unsavoury private life tainted by his taste for "bunga bunga" parties, was not the fatal blow it would have been in most Western democracies. His media ownership made politics a complex tangle of power and allowed him to project an image of himself as a playboy and plead the cases against him were politically motivated.
Berlusconi's populist policies ensured he has been in power for many of the past 20 years. He once defended tax evasion as a God-given right. The result was economic disaster. According to Italy's national statistics institute, tax evasion accounts for one-third of all private economic activity and 17% of GDP. The scale of the financial crisis engulfing Italy, combined with corruption allegations and sex scandals, led to him losing his parliamentary majority last November and since then he has kept a low profile.
He was replaced by technocrats under Mario Monti, an economist whose policies of austerity to deal with the eurozone crisis have won international praise but have inevitably been unpopular with many in Italy.
Although he is a past master of the political comeback, this week Berlusconi rebuffed the urgings of his party to lead them in elections expected next spring and announced he would not stand again. Yesterday's sentence included a fine of £8 million in damages and banned him from holding public office for three years.
Although yesterday's conviction will be appealed, with the trial in Milan over the charge of having sex with an underage prostitute not yet concluded, it would seem Berlusconi's political career is now over. That should be welcomed in Italy, allowing next year's elections to focus on the policies urgently required for economic rescue.
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