Berlusconi convicted of tax fraud

A court in Italy has convicted former premier Silvio Berlusconi of tax fraud and sentenced him to four years in prison.

The conviction was the 76-year-old media mogul's first in a long series of trials, but it did not mean he was going to prison right away. Cases in Italy must pass two levels of appeal before the verdicts are final.

His lawyers declined to comment immediately, but the billionaire businessman is expected to appeal. Berlusconi was not in the courtroom for the verdict on the case stemming from dealings in his Mediaset business empire.

Later on the Mediaset station, Berlusconi condemned as "unreal" the tax fraud conviction and said it was the result of "politicised" judges who have made Italy unliveable and no longer a democracy.

A total of 11 people were on trial. Prosecutors had alleged that the defendants were behind a scheme to purchase the rights to broadcast US movies on Berlusconi's private TV networks in his Mediaset empire through a series of offshore companies and had falsely declared the payments to avoid taxes.

Berlusconi's designated political heir as the head of the centre-right party he leads, Angelino Alfano, described the verdict as "incomprehensible" and said he was confident an appeals court would throw out the conviction.

In this and other cases against him, Berlusconi has described himself as the innocent victim of prosecutors he contends sympathise with the left. Up until now, other criminal investigation probes against him on charges including corruption had ended in acquittal or were thrown out for statute of limitations.

Of the other defendants, three were acquitted, including a close associate of Berlusconi, Fedele Confalonieri, chairman of Mediaset. Berlusconi and three others were convicted, including a Hollywood producer, Frank Agrama, who received a three-year sentence. Four defendants were cleared because statute of limitations had run out.

Berlusconi, along with other defendants convicted in the case, must deposit a total of 10 million euro (£8 million) into a court-ordered fund as appeals, which could take years, proceed.

In the same courthouse on Friday, another criminal trial against Berlusconi was being held. He is charged in that case with paying for sex with an under-age girl and trying to cover it up. Berlusconi denies wrongdoing.