After some 20 trials over two decades, Italian media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi received his first definitive conviction Thursday for evading almost $10 million in taxes while he was prime minister.
After more than seven hours of deliberations, Judge Antonio Esposito read the ruling of the five Supreme Court judges: "In the name of the Italian people," the judge declared, "Berlusconi's conviction and prison term are irrevocable."
Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in jail, and he will be banned from public office for at least one year in a ruling that could undermine the fragile coalition government.
Given his age — almost 77 — the former prime minister will not serve time in prison, and thanks to an amnesty law, three years will be shaved off his sentence. But for one year, the multimillionaire tycoon will either have to do community service with a charitable institution or live under house arrest. His movements, his visitors and his telephone calls will be restricted by the prosecutor's office. He will not be able to hold political rallies, and he will lose his Senate seat.
A 'Political Battle'
In a late-evening video message, an angry Berlusconi insisted he's innocent and said he's the victim of judicial persecution. "Today's ruling confirms my belief," Berlusconi said, "that a number of magistrates in Italy are irresponsible and uncontrollable."
And he defiantly vowed to fight back.
"We must continue our struggle for liberty and our political battle," he said, adding, "We will urge Italians to give us a majority to modernize the country and enact indispensable reforms of the justice system to free Italy from the arbitrary rule of the most terrible of all powers, the judiciary."
Berlusconi entered politics in 1994 after a massive political corruption scandal swept away the major political parties that had governed Italy for decades. He was three times prime minister but never fulfilled promises of liberal reforms.
He claimed he wanted to prevent communists from coming to power. His critics said he entered politics to protect his vast business interests.
His governments passed numerous laws that got him off the hook on many charges. Delaying tactics by his lawyers also helped him avoid jail, thanks to the statute of limitations.
During his 20 years in power, his media empire grew and today he's Italy's richest man and one of the richest in the world.
'A Long-Delayed Appointment With Justice'
Commentator Marco Travaglio, one of Berlusconi's most severe critics, says that in any other country, a man like Berlusconi would have been in jail long ago.
"So this ruling is simply a long-delayed appointment with justice," Travaglio says. "It's long been known that Berlusconi is a notorious outlaw, and sooner or later, he had to end up in trouble."
Ever since he entered politics, Berlusconi has polarized the country. For two decades, the left and the right have been waging what's been called a verbal civil war.
But after an electoral stalemate last February, the two antagonists were more or less forced to form an awkward governing coalition. The misalliance was created to try to deal with Italy's severe economic crisis. But old animosities have prevented the governing parties from achieving much of substance.
Berlusconi's conviction is likely to further weaken the coalition. Many within the center-left Democratic Party have already signaled they don't want to govern together with a convicted politician.
But, as millions of Italians now head off for what is considered the sacred August vacation, there's little chance of an immediate government collapse. The real test of the government's stability could come in the fall.