ROME — Italy's supreme court on Thursday upheld a jail sentence against Silvio Berlusconi for tax fraud in a devastating blow to the four-times prime minister that could throw the country's fragile coalition government into crisis.
The former cruise ship crooner is Italy's most colorful and scandal-prone figure but it was his first definitive conviction in up to 30 court cases on charges ranging from fraud and corruption to having sex with an underage prostitute.
After a three-day hearing, the five judges of the supreme court rejected Berlusconi's final appeal against a verdict handed down by two lower courts which sentenced the media mogul to four years in jail - commuted to one year under an amnesty.
But the top judges ordered a review by a Milan court of the second part of his sentence, a five-year ban from public office. This will enable him to remain a senator and leader of his center-right People of Freedom Party (PDL) for the moment.
In a sober video message after the verdict, Berlusconi proclaimed his total innocence and launched a bitter attack on magistrates he said had hounded him for 20 years and become an undemocratic rival power to the state.
Looking shaken, he vowed to press ahead in politics with the refoundation of his original political party, Forza Italia, through the mobilization of young people, and a reform of the justice system. But he acknowledged that he had “arrived almost at the end of my working life.”
Berlusconi, Italy's longest serving premier, had previously said the government must not fall, whatever the verdict, but he made no mention of this in his video address.
The 76-year-old billionaire who has dominated politics for 20 years and been prime minister four times, was convicted for inflating the price paid for television rights by his Mediaset media empire and skimming off part of the money to create slush funds.
Because of his age he is likely to serve the sentence either through community service or under house arrest.
He accuses leftist magistrates of relentlessly trying to remove him from politics since he stormed onto the scene in 1994 after a corruption scandal wiped out the old order.
The verdict could not only mark the twilight of his long career but destabilize the three-month-old government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta and potentially send tremors across the euro zone.