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Berlusconi loses appeal in tax fraud case

An Italian court on Wednesday upheld a tax fraud conviction for former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, confirming his sentence of one year in prison and a five-year ban from public office.

Berlusconi loses appeal in tax fraud case
File photo of Silvio Berlusconi giving a press conference on April 23nd, 2013. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

"The court confirms the sentence against Silvio Berlusconi," a judge in Milan said in a live audio feed broadcast by news channel Sky TG 24.

Berlusconi is now expected to appeal the ruling in Italy's highest court, which would suspend the punishment pending a final ruling in the case which revolves around his Mediaset business empire.

"We knew it would go like this," Berlusconi's defence lawyer Niccolo Ghedini told reporters.

"I do not think there is a connection between this verdict and political stability," said Ghedini, who is also a lawmaker from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party.

Berlusconi's party is now an influential member of a grand coalition government led by leftist moderate Enrico Letta and could bring down the cabinet if it wanted to.

The appeal verdict was the latest twist in a 20-year legal saga that began when the flamboyant billionaire first burst onto the political scene.

The case revolves around the prices of film distribution rights bought by Mediaset that were artificially inflated in order to avoid taxes.

The media tycoon is also a defendant in a trial for having sex with an underage 17-year-old prostitute while he was still prime minister, and then abusing the powers of his office by putting pressure on police to release her from custody.

A verdict in that case is expected imminently.

The 76-year-old Berlusconi was also convicted in March over the publication of police wiretap transcripts in a newspaper he owns, which were leaked in order to discredit a political rival.

Berlusconi has been convicted before but all his convictions have either been overturned on appeal or have expired under the statute of limitations.

Supporters and Berlusconi himself say he is unfairly victimized by left-wing judges who are out to get him, but critics say he has used his influence and wealth to dodge the law.

Even if his convictions are upheld throughout the appeals process, Berlusconi is unlikely ever to see the inside of a prison cell as sentencing guidelines for over 70s in Italy are lenient.

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

ANALYSIS: Italy’s hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Italian election winner Giorgia Meloni may at first glance have much in common with ultra-conservative governments in fellow EU nations Poland and Hungary, but experts say that when it comes to real-world policy any alliance could soon run into limits.

ANALYSIS: Italy's hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Reaction to Sunday’s strong result for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was muted from pillars of EU integration like Paris and Berlin, but Warsaw and Budapest were warm in their congratulations.

“We’ve never had greater need of friends sharing a vision of and a common approach to Europe,” the Hungarian government said, while from Poland came praise for Meloni’s “great victory”.

“Hungary and Poland are more than happy with this election, first because it relieves the pressure on their own countries in the EU, and second because it paves the way for a more united front,” said Yordan Bozhilov, director of the Bulgaria-based Sofia Security Forum think-tank.

READ ALSO: Polish PM hails far-right’s ‘great victory’ in Italian elections

The Italian election follows hard on the heels of a Swedish poll that also produced a surge for the extreme right.

But with the far right in power in one of the EU’s largest countries and founding members, Hungary and Poland could be far less isolated in their battles with Brussels over rule-of-law issues.

What’s more, Rome, Budapest and Warsaw are now set for alignment on social concerns, with anti-Islam, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT positions.

“Together we will defeat the cynical and pampered Eurocrats who are destroying the European Union, breaching treaties, destroying our civilisation and advancing the LGBT agenda!” Poland’s deputy agriculture minister Janusz Kowalski tweeted in a message congratulating Meloni on Monday.

Meloni also shares her prospective allies’ vision of a Christian, white Europe made up of sovereign nations.

EXPLAINED: What’s behind election success for Italy’s far right?

“Hungary and Poland are countries that want to change the EU from within, and they don’t hide it. So far they haven’t succeeded, but there will definitely be an attempt to create a Rome-Budapest-Warsaw axis,” said Tara Varma, director of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But such parties’ demands have already moderated in recent years from full exit from the EU, “given the absolute cautionary tale that Brexit has been,” she added.

Instead, the axis could become “spoilers, the sand in the gears” in Brussels.

“One step forward, two steps back, they could prevent the EU making progress while continuing to benefit from joint funds,” Varma said.

– Splits over Russia –

 A front based on values could still founder when faced with today’s overriding concern of the war in Ukraine and EU relations with Russia.

While Meloni has so far matched Warsaw in declarations of support for Ukraine and for EU sanctions on Russia over its invasion of its neighbour, Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban – close to President Vladimir Putin – is
opposed.

“At some point, Meloni will have to choose between Poland and Hungary,” Varma predicted.

The Brothers of Italy leader is not expected to bend her position to match those of her junior coalition partners, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who are friendlier to Moscow.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

“Regarding foreign policy, as far as we know Meloni backs the sanctions against Russia and Brothers of Italy is closer to Poland’s PiS (governing party) than Hungary’s Fidesz,” said Hungarian analyst Patrik Szicherle.

Meloni has “sent the right messages on Ukraine,” said Martin Quencez of the German Marshall Fund, pointing out Italy’s critical relationship with the US as a reliable NATO ally.

Once elected prime minister, she “has every incentive to have good relations with Brussels, not to enter a pitched battle,” said Paolo Modugno, professor of Italian civilisation at Paris’ Sciences Po university.

Meloni “is very aware of the Italian public’s problems, their fear of inflation and the economic situation. What’s urgent for her is to manage the crisis, not to take ideological risks,” he added.

Analysts suggest that the incoming government’s choice of top ministers, especially in the finance and foreign ministries, will clearly signal how Meloni plans to position herself in Europe.

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