Berlusconi: really guilty this time?

Yet another court ruling against Silvio Berlusconi, but this one is particularly significant: Italy’s Court of Cassation has upheld his conviction and prison sentence for tax fraud.

The significance is that this is the highest court; there is no further appeal. So one conviction, at least, will stand – others are still in the pipeline.

The original sentence of four years imprisonment had already been cut to one year due to an amnesty law, and at the age of 76 he will almost certainly not go to jail even for that. The BBC reports that “He is expected to serve house arrest or carry out community service.” The sentence barring him from public office for five years was probably more important, but that part has not been upheld – it was returned to a lower court for reconsideration.

Yet even if Berlusconi never sees the inside of a cell, the conviction for, as the court put it, being the “author of a whole system of tax fraud” will permanently tarnish his reputation. And he reacted accordingly, saying “No-one can understand the veritable violence which has been reserved for me through a series of charges and trials that had no basis in reality.”

It’s true that Italy’s judicial system is politicised to an extent that would be unacceptable in Australia, and it’s not impossible that prosecutors have cut corners to get at Berlusconi. As I said back in 2011, “For professionals in law enforcement Berlusconi would represent a recurring nightmare; one can easily imagine them reaching the point where they felt any means were justified to finally bring him down.”

But although the multitude of charges brought against him might suggest to Berlusconi an orchestrated political campaign, to a less partial observer they might simply indicate the wealth of material available.

The dynamics of Italian politics at the moment, with a grand coalition in power, mean that Berlusconi’s enemies have not been able to gloat about the decision as they otherwise might have. Centre-left prime minister Enrico Letta, who relies on the support of Berlusconi’s party, could only appeal for calm: “For the good of the country, it is necessary now that, including the legitimate framework of internal political debate, the climate of serenity … should make the interest of Italy prevail.”

The country’s president, former communist Giorgio Napolitano, echoed the sentiment: “The country needs to rediscover serenity and cohesion on vitally important institutional matters.” But populist leader Beppe Grillo showed no such restraint, accusing Berlusconi of having “polluted, corrupted and paralysed Italian politics for 21 years.”

It’s possible that history will be kinder to Berlusconi than that; he did bring Italy a greater measure of political stability than it had known for decades, and his abuses of power were mostly about personal gain rather than persecution of his opponents. He is no Richard Nixon.

But Italy’s task now is to show that it can move forward from the Berlusconi era.


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