ROME (AP) - Italy's three-time former Premier Silvio Berlusconi for the first time in two decades of criminal prosecutions related to his media empire was definitively convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to four years in prison Thursday by the nation's highest court.
The tensely awaited decision was described as a historical moment by opposition politicians and puts fresh pressure on Premier Enrico Letta's fragile coalition government. He needs the support of both Berlusconi supporters and his own center-left Democratic Party to push through reforms to get Italy out of recession, and the ruling is likely to have a destabilizing impact.
Judge Antonio Esposito, in reading the court's decision, declared Berlusconi's conviction and prison term were "'irrevocable," though he ordered another court to review the length of a ban on public office.
Lower courts had put it at five years, but a state prosecutor recommended in its arguments this week that it be lowed to three, citing conflicts in the relevant sentencing laws.
How the government is affected by the ruling is likely to emerge in comings days. On the one side, Berlusconi supporters may withdraw support in protest, while center-left lawmakers may find it unpalatable to continue in a coalition with a party whose leader has been convicted of defrauding the state of tax income.
Berlusconi's exit from the political scene he has dominated for two decades is unlikely to be quiet. A Milan appeals court will now have to determine the length of a public office ban. And then, the Senate, where Berlusconi holds a seat, will have to debate and vote on revoking his seat as part of a process that can stretch for months, if not a year. If the Senate opposes it and refuses to formally revoke Berlusconi's seat, the high court could turn to the constitutional court in a bid to resolve the standoff.
Berlusconi is highly unlikely to actually go to prison. Three years will be shaved off as part of a general pardon for crimes committed before 2006 aimed at easing prison crowding, and it is unusual for defendants to serve sentences of just one year for a first offense, particularly at Berlusconi's age, 76. He would likely be given the choice to serve the remaining year under house confinement or opt for social services.