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Wednesday, July 8, 1998 Published at 04:30 GMT 05:30 UK

World: Europe

Convicted Berlusconi lashes out

Silvio Berlusconi: bribed tax inspectors

The former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - after receiving his second conviction for corruption - has lashed out at what he described as a conspiracy to muzzle democratic opposition.

The BBC's Michael Voss on the background to the trial
He was sentenced to two years and nine months in prison by a court in Milan on Tuesday, although he will not face jail until a lengthy appeal process is exhausted.

Mr Berlusconi, who was given a suspended jail sentence in another graft trial last December, said his job as a politician was now to wage war on the "regime" controlling Italy.

"When you use the weapon of political trials to eliminate democratic opposition, you are no longer in a democracy but in a regime," the leader of the centre-right Freedom Alliance said in a statement after the verdict.

Milan judges under attack

He has defended himself against a series of criminal charges of corruption and false accounting by claiming he is being persecuted by the group of Milan judges who have been investigating widespread political and businesss corruption in Italy during the past six years.

In his latest trial, he was found guilty of paying more than $200,000 in bribes to tax inspectors between 1989 and 1991 in return for favourable audits for his business empire, Fininvest.

His brother and business associate, Paolo, who faced similar charges, was acquitted.

The defence argued that the tax inspectors had extorted the money.

Italy analyst Michele Puccioni explains why Berlusconi is unlikely to serve his sentence
Last year, Mr Berlusconi, whose media empire includes Italy's three largest television networks, was sentenced to 16 months in prison for false accounting in connection with a film deal. That verdict is now subject to an appeal.

Correspondents say it is unlikely he will go to prison for either conviction because the sentences only come into effect once all legal avenues have been explored. That process could take up to 10 years. Last December, Mr Berlusconi was sentenced by another court to sixteen months imprisonment on fraud charges, but this sentence was suspended by the court.

His political supporters have tabled a request that Parliament should set up a commission of inquiry into the investigations carried out by the Milan judiciary into political corruption.

A vote will be taken on Wednesday on whether to go ahead with this proposal.

The Milan judges, whose independence is guaranteed by Italy's constitution, are uneasy about what the BBC Rome correspondent describes as a blatant political attempt to muzzle them.

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