Continuing my habit of blogging about trials taking place on the Italian mainland, let us all now have mixed feelings about yesterday’s news that former Prime Minister Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi has been sentenced to four years in prison for tax fraud. Il Cavaliere’s sentence, handed down a year after he resigned from office, feels a bit like the tax evasion charges that ultimately felled Al Capone: a lightweight proxy punishment for a lifetime of corruption.
Berlusconi stepped down from office last November in the whirl of the Eurozone crisis, but looking back on it, the abdication feels equally wrapped up in the (ongoing) charges that he slept with the underage prostitute known as Ruby the Heart-Stealer, then illegally engineered her release from detention. Indeed, as the Financial Times’s Tony Barber notes this weekend, “over the almost 20 years that he has been an active politician, Mr. Berlusconi has stood trial on charges ranging from bribery of judges to false accounting.” Most significantly, “he has never been definitively convicted of anything.
In that sense, this conviction looks like a big step forward. Look closer, however, and you’ll notice that there’s little indication this trial will end up any different from the last few. First, because of an amnesty law, three of the four years have already been wiped from the 76 year-old’s sentence. Second, as Barber notes, “three prison terms have been imposed on him in the past…before being lifted later in the judicial process, either through acquittal or because of the statute of limitations.” Third, the latest ruling’s five-year ban on political activity is basically meaningless, since it “cannot take effect until the (endless Italian) appeals process is exhausted, and only if the ex-premier’s guilt is irreversibly upheld.”
On Wednesday, Berlusconi’s seemed to anticipate these charges, declaring that he wouldn’t run for office this spring. Given his history of dodging prison, however, it may be better to heed the words of an former Berlusconi ally quoted by the Associated Press: “For now that is just one of the many Berlusconi announcements to which he has accustomed Italians. We’ll see in a short time if it is something concrete, or only a propagandistic discovery.”