By Colleen Barry Associated Press
MILAN — Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi was ordered Tuesday to spend four hours a week helping the elderly to repay society for his tax fraud conviction, a sentence that imposes few restrictions on his campaigning in the upcoming European elections.
The 77-year-old three-time former premier cannot run in the elections due to the conviction, but he remains influential in politics as head of the Forza Italia party. His support is also crucial for a constitutional reform to abolish the Senate sought by Premier Matteo Renzi. The two men met on the eve of the court’s decision in Renzi’s offices, according to Italian media reports.
Berlusconi’s four-year sentence for tax fraud was confirmed by Italy’s highest court last summer, the first ever against the media mogul in dozens of prosecutions, and reduced to one year under a general amnesty aimed at easing overcrowding in Italian prisons. Due to Berlusconi’s age and the relatively short sentence, prison time was never likely. He was, however, booted from the Senate and given a two-year ban on running for elected office.
Berlusconi’s lawyers, who petitioned for community service rather than the more restrictive house arrest, called the one-year community service assignment “balanced” also in regard to Berlusconi’s political activity. Berlusconi was already meeting in Rome on Tuesday with members of his party to determine candidates for vote at the end of May.
The Milan court’s decision stipulated that Berlusconi must spend most of his time in the Lombard region where he lives, but permits him to travel to Rome each week from Tuesday to Thursday. It also allows him to come and go from his respective residences in Rome and Milan between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., freeing him to participate in the political campaign. He must seek permission to travel elsewhere in Italy.
“If he can meet everybody, that is pretty much what he is doing now,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist at Rome’s LUISS University. “Four hours a week community service is peanuts.”
D’Alimonte said the court clearly made the concession “taking into account that he is the leader of a major political force.”
Berlusconi will be spending half a day each week at a center for the elderly — one of his strongest voting blocs. The order did not identify where, but Italian media identified the center as the Sacred Heart institute of Cesano Boscone, near Milan. The director, Paolo Pigni, confirmed he had registered the center’s willingness to work with Berlusconi to the court. He expects confirmation of the assignment in the coming days.
Pigni said Berlusconi would be assisting professionals helping the elderly, and that he hoped that the media interest stirred by Berlusconi’s presence “won’t be an excessive distraction to the inhabitants.”
Berlusconi is still on trial for political corruption in Naples and under investigation in Milan for witness tampering in trials relating to sex-fueled parties at his villa near Milan. His appeals trial for a conviction for having paid for sex with a minor and using his influence to cover it up is scheduled to open in June. At the original trial, he was sentenced to seven years in jail and given a lifetime political ban, but that has yet to be confirmed.