MILAN – Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi was convicted Thursday over the illegal publication in a newspaper owned by his media empire of wiretapped conversations related to a bank takeover attempt.
A Milan court found Berlusconi guilty of breach of confidentiality and sentenced him to one year in jail, though it did not issue an order on carrying out the sentence. In Italy, it is rare for anyone to be put behind bars pending a possible appeal except in the case of very serious crimes like murder.
The verdict, the first of three expected for Berlusconi in the coming weeks, comes at a moment of political uncertainty for the country after February national elections failed to elect a clear winner. Berlusconi's center-right coalition finished second.
The conviction, however, has no bearing on Berlusconi's eligibility to participate in discussions on forming a new government, which are expected to begin March 20. Lawmakers have failed, despite several attempts, to pass a law banning candidates from Parliament after any criminal conviction.
While Berlusconi's party won't be tapped to form a new government, a task that is expected to fall to Pier Luigi Bersani on the center-left, President Giorgio Napolitano will be looking to secure as broad agreement as possible for legislative priorities.
Napolitano's role as president is to preside over coalition talks by convening the parliamentary groups for private meetings in which he seeks to gain consensus for a new government -- a particularly difficult task given the three-way gridlock resulting from last month's vote.
The third player with influence on the discussions is comic-turned-civic leader Beppe Grillo, who has said his movement --which gained 25 percent of the vote -- won't formally support any government with a vote of confidence, which must be secured by Italy's constitution. It remains to be seen how this conflict can be resolved.
Berlusconi, in a statement, accused the courts of judicial persecution "that continues for 20 years and is revived every time there are particularly complex moments in the political life of the country."
He said he expects convictions in his pending Milan trials: an appeal to his October conviction on a tax fraud charge and the sensational sex-for-hire trial that accuses him of having paid for sex with an under-age teen and using his influence to cover it up.
Berlusconi's brother, Paolo Berlusconi, was convicted of the same charge and sentenced to two years and three months. Paolo Berlusconi is publisher of the Milan newspaper il Giornale, which published the transcript of the conversation.
Silvio Berlusconi's defense team and political allies accused the court of seeking a speedy verdict for political impact.
`'It is always more clear that there is an attempt to eliminate Silvio Berlusconi by judicial means, having failed by electoral or democratic measures," said Angelino Alfano, the head of Belursconi's People of Freedom party.
The charge relates to the 2005 publication of a wiretapped call that was part of an investigation into the Unipol financial services company's bid to take over the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro. The bid was later blocked by Italy's central bank, contributing to the forced resignation of then-Bank of Italy chief Antonio Fazio -- and led to a series of trials that saw Fazio and others convicted.
Wiretapped conversations are widely published in Italian media, despite the risks of prosecution.
In a potentially more damaging case, the verdict is also nearing in Berlusconi's appeals trial on a conviction of tax fraud in the purchase of rights to broadcast Hollywood films on Berlusconi's Mediaset network. Prosecutors have demanded the court uphold the conviction and four-year sentence. They also are seeking a five-year ban from public office.
Berlusconi also is on trial in Milan for allegedly paying a Moroccan teen for sex during his now-infamous Bunga Bunga parties, with a verdict likely this month.
Prosecutors in Naples are investigating him for corruption for allegedly paying an opposition lawmaker euro3 million ($3.9 million) to join his party, a move that significantly weakened the previous center-left government of Romano Prodi.