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Berlusconi's political future weighed in Senate

Monday - 9/9/2013, 2:50pm  ET

FRANCES D'EMILIO
Associated Press

ROME (AP) -- An Italian Senate panel set to work Monday to decide whether ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi should lose his seat in the upper chamber of Parliament because of his tax fraud conviction and prison sentence.

Berlusconi has threatened to yank his ministers out of Premier Enrico Letta's unusual left-right coalition if his fellow senators vote to strip him of his seat. But the media magnate has also insisted he doesn't want to trigger the collapse of the four-month-old government, which is struggling to tug Italy out of a stubborn recession.

Last month, Italy's top criminal tribunal, the Court of Cassation, upheld his conviction and a four-year sentence, setting the stage for the Senate showdown.

The Senate action is based on a 2012 law stipulating that anyone convicted to more than two years in prison cannot hold or run for office for six years. Berlusconi's aides and lawyers insist that that he keep his seat, arguing that it would be unconstitutional to apply the law to him retroactively since his conviction stems from a case before the law existed.

Members of the panel, speaking to reporters during a break in the closed-door session, indicated that no decision was imminent. Whatever it decides, the entire Senate will have to sign off on the recommendation with a vote, stretching the decision-making process over a period of weeks.

Berlusconi has already asked the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to weigh in on his quest to keep his Senate post.

Berlusconi's bid "is surely an element we will reflect on, but it's an event external to the panel's work," said Stefania Pezzopane, a center-right leader who is a vice president of the panel. Her comment seemed to indicate that the panel wouldn't wait for any decision by the court, which, even if it agrees to rule on the ex-premier's petition, could take months.

She expressed the sentiment of several other panel members when she called the intent of the 2012 law "very clear" -- anyone with a prison term exceeding two years is ineligible to serve, whether the crime was committed before or after the law's passage.

The People of Freedom party panel member who pitched for Berlusconi to hold on to his seat told reporters that the Strasbourg court bid was only a "fragment" of the former premier's strategy.

A Milan appeals court and a lower court had found Berlusconi guilty of artificially inflating the amounts paid for film rights by his Mediaset empire to reduce the company's tax liabilities. The Milan court also issued a ban against holding office, and a separate court must still determine the length of that ban -- from one to three years. That ban isn't related to the one the Senate is debating.

Letta's center-left Democratic Party says the 2012 law must be applied, and that Berlusconi's challenge is simply another last-ditch effort to save himself from his own legal woes.

Still, a top Democratic Party member and even Italy's justice minister have said the constitutionality of the law could be reviewed by Italy's Constitutional Court, given that several legal scholars have questioned whether the ban is retroactive.

Letta, for his part, has tried to sound confident that Berlusconi's allies won't pull the party's support for his government.

"I think they won't leave the coalition," Letta told the British Broadcasting Corp in an interview.

Because of a law to reduce prison overcrowding, Berlusconi's four-year sentence was automatically reduced to one year. And because of his age --he turns 77 later this month -- he is eligible to serve the punishment under house confinement. He can also opt to do a year of community service, but hasn't said publicly what he will choose.


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