June 21 - Italy’s constitutional court has rejected Silvio Berlusconi’s bid to block a tax fraud conviction linked to his television empire, in a decision likely to increase tension in the coalition. It comes ahead of a separate decision on Monday – when a Milan court will hand down a verdict on charges he paid for sex with a minor. Joanna Partridge reports.
Silvio Berlusconi's been no stranger to the courts over the past few years. But his current legal difficulties are increasing tension within Italy's coalition government, which depends on Berlusconi's party to survive. On Wednesday, Italy's constitutional court stopped the former prime minister's attempts to block a conviction for tax fraud on procedural grounds, clearing the way for a final verdict. And the 76-year-old faces an even more widely anticipated ruling on Monday, on charges of paying for sex with a minor. The media billionaire has been convicted of inflating the price paid for television rights by his Mediaset network, to create illegal slush funds. The case has passed through several appeals - and the court could yet jail him and ban him from public office. Berlusconi says he still supports the coalition, and Letta denies the trials are a distraction. SOUNDBITE: Enrico Letta, Italian Prime Minister, saying (Italian): "I see the government as stable and focused on its objectives and as I've said I don't believe there will be any kind of consequence from external issues, be they judicial or any other kind, on the stability and the determination with which the government works." Berlusconi denies all charges against him, saying what he calls leftist magistrates are trying to remove him from politics. James Walston from the American University of Rome says some of the explosive cases against Berlusconi will test the government's stability. SOUNDBITE: PROFESSOR JAMES WALSTON, PROFESSOR OF ITALIAN AND COMPARATIVE POLITICS AT THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF ROME, SAYING (English): "He does not want to bring the government down but he has as his primary objective to keep out of jail and to prevent himself from being convicted. There is the chance that he will go from playing the grand old statesman in Italy to being a populist rabble-rouser on the election trail if he is convicted." Under the Italian legal system, a final verdict isn't reached until all appeals have been exhausted. That means it could take years for all Berlusconi's ongoing trials to end. And as Letta's government struggles to get the economy back on track, uncertainty is the last thing they need.