A tax fraud conviction against ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi has been upheld by the country's highest court in a move that could imperil a fragile coalition government.
The Court of Cassation's five-judge panel decided Thursday to reject Berlusconi's final appeal, threatening the stability of Premier Enrico Letta's ruling coalition, which depends on support from Berlusconi's party. The flamboyant media mogul turned politician had earlier been sentenced to four years, but that had been commuted under an amnesty.
The charges stem from the October conviction of 76-year-old Berlusconi and three others on tax fraud charges related to the tycoon's purchase of television rights for his Mediaset network.
However, the judges ordered a lower court to review its imposition of a five-year ban on Berlusconi's participating in public office.
The Associated Press reports:
"Berlusconi has no official role in the government, but he remains influential in the center-right, and backers already slowed Parliament's work last month after the high court put his case on the docket this summer, instead of the fall, to prevent some of the charges from expiring."
However, it will take time for the ramifications of the decision to wend their way through the Italian legal and political systems, The New York Times says. The newspaper notes that while the decision represents "the first time Mr. Berlusconi has received a definitive conviction in 20 years of tangles with Italy's judicial system," it "does not automatically send [him] to jail or house arrest."
"The same Milan appeals court that convicted the former prime minister must also formally request his arrest. Mr. Berlusconi's lawyers could also request a suspended sentence.
"A Senate committee must rule on whether Mr. Berlusconi must resign from public office, a procedure that could take months. Almost all lawmakers handed definitive sentences have chosen to leave Parliament of their own volition in order to avoid embarrassment."