Silvio Berlusconi`s lawyers asks court to acquit him of tax fraud

A lower appeals court had sentenced Silvio Berlusconi to jail and a ban from public office.

Rome: Lawyers for Silvio Berlusconi asked the supreme court on Wednesday to throw out a tax fraud conviction against the former prime minister in a case that could decide not only his future but that of Italy`s fragile coalition government.

The Court of Cassation heard more than three hours of arguments from Berlusconi`s two lawyers challenging the verdict of a lower appeals court which sentenced him to jail and a ban from public office for the fraudulent purchase of broadcasting rights by his Mediaset television empire.

The court then adjourned until Thursday when a court official said the five judges would begin considering their decision at noon (1000 GMT/6 am ET). The court can confirm the sentence, overturn it or send the case back to the appeals court for a retrial because of legal errors.

If the court confirms the sentence, there could be political turmoil in the midst of Italy`s worst postwar recession.

The weak coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta`s center-left Democratic Party (PD) and Berlusconi`s centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) could be plunged into crisis, with potential fallout across the eurozone.

Berlusconi`s chief lawyer, Franco Coppi, told the supreme court judges that the lower court had ignored defence arguments that Berlusconi was not directly involved in Mediaset`s business dealings after he entered politics in 1994.

He said in any case the court had wrongly framed the charges, which were not fraud but an accounting offence subject to fines rather than a penal sentence.

On Tuesday, the public prosecutor asked the court to reject Berlusconi`s final appeal against a four-year jail sentence commuted to one year under an amnesty. But he said a ban from public office for the four-time prime minister should be reduced from five years to three.

The 76-year-old media tycoon says he has been persecuted by leftist judges ever since he entered politics in 1994, but if he loses the supreme court case it will be his first definitive conviction in at least two dozen trials.

Because of his age, the jail sentence would be served through community service or house arrest. Followers say he would still run his party, which he founded and bankrolls and which has no clear alternative leader.