NEW: Silvio Berlusconi will appeal the verdict
NEW: His lawyer says the case shows judicial bias against Berlusconi
The former prime minister was accused of publishing a rival's wiretapped conversation
Berlusconi's brother also was sentenced to prison
Silvio Berlusconi’s long strange trip through Italian politics – and the nation’s justice system – reached another stop Thursday as a Milan court sentenced the former prime minister to a year in prison for publishing secretly recorded details of a political rival’s telephone conversations.
The conviction comes less than two weeks after Berlusconi came in a seemingly improbable second among voters as he tried to win back his old job.
Whether Berlusconi, 76, will ever set foot in prison is questionable. Berlusconi has been charged and convicted before but has never served time. Previous charges have either been overturned on appeal or dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
Berlusconi’s lawyer, Piero Longo, said he will appeal.
“We are not surprised by the verdict because of the judiciary bias against our client, which is proven here by the lack of evidence against him in this case,” Longo told CNN.
The former prime minister is currently appealing his conviction last year on tax fraud charges relating to the sale of film rights by his media company, Mediaset. He is also on trial over allegations he paid for sex with an underage prostitute. A decision in that case is could come as early as March 18.
Details of the case
The case involves publication of details from a 2005 conversation between Piero Fassino – a political rival of Berlusconi’s – and the former chairman of an insurance group that at the time was close to taking over a large Italian bank. The takeover could have created a rival to Berlusconi’s Finnivest conglomerate.
The transcript – published in a newspaper run by Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo – appeared to show Fassino, as head of the center-left opposition, had used his political position to help the insurance group take over Banco Nazionale del Lavoro. The ensuing scandal, which caused the deal to collapse, was widely viewed as an effort to discredit Fassino.
The conversation was recorded by Italian financial crimes investigators, according to prosecutors, who argued Berlusconi bribed someone to obtain the recordings, then broke the law by publishing parts of them.
Berlusconi has denied listening to the recordings or ordering their publication.
Fassino issued a statement lauding the court’s decision.
“This is a ruling that restores truth and justice and confirms the judicial system, despite conscious criticism and mocking of the system for years, in a political campaign to vilify and delegitimize it,” he said.
Jail time, fine
According to court documents, Berlusconi was sentenced to one year in prison. Paolo Berlusconi received two years and three months.
Silvio Berlusconi was also ordered to pay €80,000 (about $104,000) plus legal costs to Fassino, whose attorneys had been seeking €1 million (about $1.3 million) in damages.
His lawyers will appeal to increase the award, they said in a statement following the verdict.
History of scandal
Berlusconi – who served on and off as prime minister between 1994 and 2011 – is arguably one of the most colorful and controversial figures in the lively history of Italian politics. For years, he has been entangled in fraud, corruption and sex scandals that have often reached Italian courts.
Berlusconi’s first conviction came in 1997, four years after he was first elected prime minister and a year after he was removed after losing the support of other parties. The sentence in that conviction was suspended.
A year later, in 1998, a court convicted him of corruption and bribery, but those verdicts were overturned in 1999 and 2000.
In 2007, prosecutors accused him of judicial corruption over accusations he paid a lawyer $600,000 in exchange for favorable testimony in two court case. He was also accused of tax fraud and receipt of stolen goods involving the same lawyer.
A judge dismissed some tax fraud allegations and the stolen goods case in 1998; the corruption case ended in 2012 when a judge ruled the statute of limitations had run out.
He was convicted in 2012 on allegations that he had engaged in tax fraud involving Mediaset. Prosecutors accused Berlusconi of reducing Mediaset’s tax liabilities by purchasing U.S. movie rights at inflated prices and then creating illegal slush funds.
He is currently appealing that conviction.
Sex scandals have also ensnared Berlusconi, whose wife filed for divorce in 2009 following reports of the then-prime minister’s involvement with an 18-year-old girl.
Two years later, magistrates in Milan said they were investigating whether Berlusconi paid for sex with an underage prostitute named Ruby the Heartbreaker, then used his power to spring her from jail in an unrelated incident in which she was picked up for theft.
Berlusconi’s trial on those charges began in 2011, shortly before he resigned from office.
Berlusconi has a vast business empire, including media holdings and construction companies. Forbes Magazine says he has a net worth of $6.2 billion.
Journalist Barbie Nadeau reported from Rome, Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Peter Wilkinson, Paul Armstrong contributed to this report.