Berlusconi trying for one last great escape

By Barry Moody, Reuters

ROME — Can Silvio Berlusconi pull off one last escape or is Italy’s most controversial man finally finished after being convicted of tax fraud?

Perhaps the biggest shock for Berlusconi’s intensely loyal supporters when the supreme court on Thursday rejected his appeal against a four-year jail sentence — commuted to one year — was that he had failed to evade his pursuers as usual. The billionaire media mogul has seen off dozens of legal prosecutions and weathered a sea of scandals since he stormed into politics in 1994 to fill a void on the right after a huge corruption investigation wiped out the old political order. But on Thursday the courts finally caught up with one of Italy richest men and its most successful politician, handing down a verdict which shook the uneasy coalition in which his center-right rules with the center-left.

Berlusconi, 76, looked shaken and pallid when he issued a video message on Thursday night, far from the wisecracking and cheerful rogue figure so popular with his supporters in television appearances and public meetings in the past. He said he had “reached almost the end of my working life.”

The verdict condemns him to either a year of community service or house arrest, bans him from voting or standing in an election and is likely to lead to his peers throwing him out of the Senate — ironically under the terms of a 2012 law passed by his disparaged successor as prime minister, Mario Monti.

But although he is doubtlessly severely wounded and these are formidable obstacles, he seems not yet mortally hurt. “Berlusconi is not finished,” read a banner headline in il Giornale, the newspaper run by his brother. “Berlusconi will only leave politics if he is dead. He is too determined to fight injustice,” one avid supporter, Giuseppe Luca, a 59-year-old Rome antiques dealer, told Reuters. Martyr In his video message Berlusconi painted himself as a martyr, persecuted by the leftist magistrates he has repeatedly accused of hounding him to subvert the democratic will of Italians.

He said he was the victim of “a judicial persecution that has no equal in the civilised world.”

Such accusations strike a chord with center right voters in a country where many have been victims of a Byzantine legal system where magistrates are routinely politicized.

Asked if Berlusconi was politically dead, one former close ally who asked not to be named replied: “No way! Wait for the opinion polls. You will see how Italians see this affair. They always tend to sympathies with a martyr … Berlusconi will rise again.” “House arrest for one year is not a very long time. He will obviously continue with his contacts. At the end of the year he will still be in the struggle, so it is a period of suspension,” Bologna University professor Gianfranco Pasquino told Reuters.

Berlusconi vowed to push on with “a battle of freedom,” continuing a project to refound his original party, Forza Italia (Go Italy), infused with new energy from younger people.