What’s the punishment for a 300 million euro tax fraud? If you are in Italy and your name is Silvio Berlusconi it is about a week hanging out with people your age.
A court in Milan ruled earlier this week that as his sentence the 77-year-old billionaire media mogul and thrice Italian PM would be performing community service in the small northern town of Cesano Boscone – “once a week and for a period of no less than four consecutive hours” – in a centre for the elderly and disabled.
The ruling came eight months after his conviction for tax fraud was made definitive by Italy’s supreme court. In August last year the country’s top court had found him guilty of having had a role in allowing his Mediaset company – which has a virtual private terrestrial TV monopoly in Italy – to fraudulently lower its tax bill by buying US film and television rights at inflated prices.
Last August, the supreme court judges handed down a four-year sentence, but immediately commuted it to a year.
Under this week’s ruling, the poor ex-premier will be subject to a curfew of 11pm and will not be able to leave the region of Lombardy.
Except, that is, to go to his home in the centre of Rome. And he will be able to do that every week from Tuesday to Thursday, providing he is back at his vast Arcore palace – the venue of his bunga bunga parties located just 40 kilometres down the road – by 11pm on the Thursday.
Furthermore, the sentence could be further cut for good behaviour to nine months.
It is not just the punishment that is scandalously soft.
Just how appropriate is it? His job may entail entertaining the elderly guests of the home – and his past life as a cruise ship crooner will no doubt help.
But according to Article 47 of the Prison Administration Act community service should only be offered to the criminal “in cases where it can be assumed that the measure…contributes to the rehabilitation of the offender and ensures the prevention of the danger of committing other crimes,” Rossella Guadagnini highlights in the Italian journal Micromega.
As Al Jazeera points out Berlusconi claims total innocence of any crime he has ever been charged with. And he is currently involved in two other court cases.
In a trial set to start on June 20, he will appeal a seven-year prison sentence and lifetime ban from parliament for having sex with an underage 17-year-old prostitute and abusing his official powers. He is also a defendant in a trial for allegedly paying a $4m bribe to get a centre-left senator to join his party in 2006 in a move that helped bring down a rival government.
As a indicator of the seriousness of the crime of robbing a heavily indebted state blind, the punishment speaks for itself. Tax dodging – running at 130 billion euros annually officially but double that figures according to some sources – is bleeding the public coffers dry. The result is two trillion euros in public debts, which are being used as the excuse for swinging cuts to welfare and public services, privatisation, roll back of labour rights, and attacks on public servants’ wages.
Italian businessmen with access to expensive lawyers and good political links (any serious player in Italy has them) will have been taking due note of Berlusconi’s case.
The worst of it is that, as the Guardian reports, although he has been booted out of the Senate and is now banned from office, he’ll still be ‘allowed time’ to continue his political activities – nominally behind the scenes but no doubt very visible on Italians screens – as head of Forza Italia.
The party is the third largest political force in the country, behind PM Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party and Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, according to recent polls. The first appointment is the European elections next month.
Italy has lost two decades under the rule of Berlusconi, who entered politics in person in 1994 when his political protectors – notably former right-wing Socialist PM Bettino Craxi – melted away under the scrutiny of the same ‘communist’ judges Berlusconi has so long railed against. But if this is the best the toghe rosse can do, it can only be said that communism is well and truly dead in Italy.