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ROME – A Milan judge on Friday sentenced controversial Italian media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to four years behind bars in a 2006 tax fraud case tied to TV broadcast rights to movies.
Despite more than two-dozen sets of criminal and civil charges against the 76-year-old dating back nearly two decades, this is the first time Berlusconi has ever been convicted of anything. Previous charges were often dismissed because of technicalities or because the statute of limitations ran out.
This is also the first time a former Italian prime minister has been convicted of such serious criminal charges since 1994, when former Berlusconi mentor Bettino Craxi was found guilty of widespread corruption, prompting him to flee to Tunisia.
The tax evasion lawsuit was brought against Berlusconi in 2006, when he led the then-Italian government. The prosecutor had demanded three years and eight months in prison for the owner of Italian media group Mediaset.
The latest verdict was big news in Italy, where newscasters broke into regular afternoon programming on TV and editors from Italian news sites placed the development on the top of their sites with large headlines. In the same verdict, which came two days after Berlusconi had signaled that he would not run for the role of prime minister in an upcoming election, 10 other officials from his Mediaset were also convicted.
Berlusconi was not in the courtroom to hear the verdict on charges that he was involved in a scheme of moving content rights for some 3,000 films between various subsidiaries of the Mediaset network to avoid paying taxes, while pocketing an estimated €250 million ($325 million) in licensing fees. Berlusconi has maintained his innocence in the case, which he says is politically motivated.
The billionaire mogul’s lawyers immediately indicated they intended to appeal the verdict, which includes a provision tax bill worth €10 million ($13 million). If the verdict stands, Berlusconi will be barred from seeking political office for three years.
The verdict comes at the end of a long period of unwelcome developments for Berlusconi and his Mediaset empire, which has seen its share price touch new 52-week lows almost every week amid slumping ad sales and fears that Berlusconi’s scandals would hurt the company. The company declared a moratorium on international acquisitions in September and is reportedly looking to sell some assets in an effort to raise cash.
And Berlusconi himself, who stepped down as prime minister 11 months ago and then declared intentions to run for the office again in elections next year, never saw his campaign gain traction and has since said he would drop out.
Berlusconi remains on trial in a separate case that alleges he paid an underage erotic dancer for sex and then used his office as prime minister to try to help get the girl off when she was arrested for shoplifting.
Mediaset shares closed Friday’s trading session down 2.9 percent at €1.34 ($1.74), just above the stock’s 52-week low.
Georg Szalai in London contributed to this report.
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