Berlusconi's hearing begins in Italy's supreme court

Analysts say the departure of Berlusconi will have serious implications on his party.

Former Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Picture: AFP.

ROME - Italy's Supreme Court began considering on Tuesday Silvio Berlusconi's last appeal against a jail sentence and ban from public office for tax fraud in a case which could threaten the survival of a shaky coalition government.

If five top judges rule against the former prime minister in the first definitive conviction in dozens of court cases, it would mark the end of two decades in which he has dominated Italian politics through his media power and political skill.

It could also plunge the government - an uneasy coalition of Enrico Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) - into crisis and bring renewed uncertainty to the Eurozone third's largest economy, with potential fallout across the bloc.

Berlusconi's chief lawyer, Franco Coppi, told journalists it was very unlikely the court would reach a decision on Tuesday because of other cases facing the judges. Experts say it could take as long as Thursday.

Coppi also said the defence would not request that the case be postponed until September although the judges might decide to do that on their own account.

Moderate politicians have urged the court to delay the ruling for the sake of political stability, due to the uncertain consequences if Berlusconi is convicted.

The judges of the Court of Cassation are hearing a final appeal by the 76-year-old media magnate against a four-year jail sentence, commuted to one year under an amnesty, and a five-year ban from office handed down by lower courts for the fraudulent purchase of broadcasting rights by his Mediaset media empire.

Three other people were also convicted in the case.

If definitively convicted, Berlusconi would not normally go to prison because of his age but would have to do community service or serve his sentence at home.

Berlusconi accuses left-wing magistrates of abusing their powers to try to bring him down in more than two dozen court cases since he stormed to power for the first time in 1994.

The case was fast-tracked to be heard by a special summer session of the Supreme Court to avoid part of any sentence being annulled by the statute of limitations.

PDL hawks have called for everything from a mass resignation of its government ministers to blocking Italy's motorways if the court rules against him.

Fabrizio Cicchitto, a senior PDL parliamentarian, said the media magnate had faced 30 trials. "If this is not a political use of justice what is?"

The departure of Berlusconi from parliament if he is convicted would also raise major questions about the future of his party, which depends on his charisma and wealth.

A greater risk to the government could come from Letta's faction-ridden PD, with many members already deeply unhappy about being in a coalition with their old enemy. Some may refuse to continue if he is found guilty.

Berlusconi has kept his party hawks on a tight leash for months, saying the government must continue.

His lawyers have filed 50 objections to the Supreme Court, which will rule only on legal procedure and whether the lower appeals court properly justified its sentence.

The court has three choices: convict Berlusconi, acquit him or send the case back to the appeals court due to legal errors.

Even if Berlusconi is found guilty, the ban from holding public office depends on a vote by his peers in the Senate which could take weeks or months.