MILAN -- Just two days after announcing he won't run in spring elections, former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to 4 years in prison yesterday in a verdict that could see him barred from public office for five years.
Berlusconi, after dominating Italian politics for nearly two decades, has seen his power weakening in the last year as a sex scandal tarnished his image and he was forced to resign as premier after failing to convince financial markets that he could come up with viable reforms to shield Italy from Europe's debt woes.
In the latest blow, the 76-year-old billionaire media mogul received the stiffest sentence among the four co-defendants convicted in a scheme that involved inflating the price his media empire paid for TV rights to U.S. movies and pocketing the difference.
The court also said Berlusconi could not hold public office for five years or manage any company for three years, penalties that would take effect only if the conviction is upheld on two levels of appeal.
Berlusconi's lawyers condemned the verdict as ''absolutely incredible," and said they would appeal. Berlusconi is expected to remain free while two levels of appeal are exhausted.
However, a corruption bill drafted by the technical government headed by Premier Mario Monti, who replaced Berlusconi, would bar anyone convicted at the trial level from seeking office.
Berlusconi denounced the conviction as ''unreal" and the case as politically motivated. Berlusconi stayed away from the Milan tribunal, where his lawyers on Friday were defending him in a separate courtroom on charges of having paid for sex with an underage Moroccan teen and trying to cover it up.