Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been convicted three times before yet has never set foot in a prison cell.
On Friday, he was convicted for a fourth time, and it appears likely he will slip away to freedom once again. Mr. Berlusconi, who resigned a year ago to make way for Mario Monti as Italy's financial crisis escalated, did not even bother to appear in the Milan courtroom to hear his sentencing.
The three-time prime minister, who has dominated Italian politics since he was first elected in 1994, was found guilty of tax fraud and sentenced to four years in prison. He was also barred from public office for five years. If he appeals within 15 days, which he will, his sentence will automatically get suspended and remain so until the end of the appeal process.
He has the right to two more appeals. The Italian criminal court system is notoriously slow and inefficient, meaning the appeal process could easily run into the statute of limitations next year. If that were to happen, which seems likely, his crime would be extinguished and he would be a free man.
His legal tactics – appeal, appeal and overshoot the statute of limitations – were as predictable as the response from his allies. Angelino Alfano, secretary of Mr. Berlusconi's centre-right The People of Freedom party, said in a report carried by the Italian news agency Ansa that the conviction "is the umpteenth demonstration that there is a campaign of judicial attacks on Silvio Berlusconi."
Mr. Berlusconi and his party have always argued that the judiciary, encouraged by the parties of the left, have always conspired to remove him from office in an anti-democratic vendetta.
Mr. Berlusconi had no immediate comment Friday but later used an appearance on a TV channel owned by Mediaset, his family-controlled broadcaster, to denounce the court ruling. "If you can't count on impartial judges in a country, the country becomes uncivil, barbarian and unlivable and stops being a democracy," he said. "It's sad, but the situation of our country today is that way."
Last year, when he was ordered to stand trial for allegedly having sex with underage Moroccan club dancer Karima El Mahroug – nicknamed Ruby Rubacuore, or Ruby the Heart Stealer – in the "bunga bunga" trial, he compared the attacks against him to a left-wing conspiracy and the investigators who probed into his personal life to East Germany's Stasi secret police.
Bunga bunga referred to a group sex game allegedly played at Mr. Berlusconi's parties at his mansions. The Ruby trial is ongoing; Mr. Berlusconi has denied having sex with the then-17-year-old.
In e-mailed statements, his lawyers, Piero Longo and Niccolo Ghedini, called the conviction "absolutely incredible" and "lacking in legal logic." They said they would file an appeal.
Mr. Berlusconi's political rivals were delighted by the conviction, hoping the negative publicity will send voters fleeing to the centre-left parties. Antonio di Pietro, the president of the Italy of Values party and a former judge in the massive "Mani Pulite" (Clean Hands) investigation into political corruption in the early 1990s, said "the truth [about Mr. Berlusconi] has been exposed."
The conviction came only two days after Mr. Berlusconi, his party sinking in the polls, said he would not attempt a fourth run at the premiership in May's elections. Mr. Monti, Italy's unelected, technocrat prime minister, has said he will not run but has offered to stay on if the election proves inconclusive.
In the tax-fraud case, the magistrates said that Fininvest, the Berlusconi family company that controls Mediaset, Italy's biggest commercial TV business, lavishly paid a middleman for the rights to TV movies and programs. They charged that the strategy was designed to make it appear that Mediaset was less profitable than it really was. The funds paid to the middleman, they said, were then stashed into an offshore fund controlled by Mr. Berlusconi.
Mr. Berlusconi received three convictions in rapid succession in the late 1990s for false accounting in the purchase of a film company, bribing a tax inspector and illegally transferring funds to Bettino Craxi, a former Italian prime minister. In each case, he was either acquitted or got off under the statute of limitations.
Mr. Berlusconi has claimed he is the most prosecuted politician in history. Last year, he said the judiciary had launched 100 investigations into his activities, resulting in 28 trials and more than 2,500 hearings. He said his legal bill had reached €300-million since he became prime minister.