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After some 20 trials over two decades, Italy's media king, Silvio - Silvio Berlusconi, received his first definitive conviction yesterday. It's for evading almost $10 million in taxes while he was prime minister. He was sentenced to four years in jail and will be banned from public office for at least one year. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on what that might mean.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: After more than seven hours of deliberations, Judge Antonio Esposito read the ruling of the five Supreme Court judges.

ANTONIO ESPOSITO: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: In the name of the Italian people, the judge declared, Berlusconi's conviction and prison term are irrevocable. Given his age, almost 77, the former prime minister will not serve time in prison, and thanks to an amnesty law, three years will be shaved off his sentence. But for one year the multimillionaire tycoon will either have to do community service with a charitable institution or live under house arrest.

His movements, his visitors and his telephone calls will be restricted by the prosecutor's office. He will not be able to hold political rallies, and he will lose his Senate seat. In a late-evening video message, an angry Berlusconi insisted he's innocent and said he's the victim of judicial persecution.

SILVIO BERLUSCONI: (Through translator) Today's ruling confirms my belief that a number of magistrates in Italy are irresponsible and uncontrollable.

POGGIOLI: And he defiantly vowed to fight back.

BERLUSCONI: (Through translator) We must continue our struggle for liberty and our political battle. We will urge Italians to give us a majority, to modernize the country, and enact indispensable reforms of the justice system to free Italy from the arbitrary rule of the most terrible of all powers, the judiciary.

POGGIOLI: Berlusconi entered politics in 1994, after a massive political corruption scandal swept away the major political parties that had governed Italy for decades. He was three times prime minister but never fulfilled his promises of liberal reforms. His governments passed numerous laws that got him off the hook on many charges. Delaying tactics by his lawyers also helped him avoid jail, thanks to the statute of limitations.

During his 20 years in power, his media empire grew, and today he's Italy's richest man and one of the richest in the world. Commentator Marco Travaglio is one of Berlusconi's most severe critics. He says that in any other country a man like Berlusconi would have been in jail long ago.

MARCO TRAVAGLIO: (Through interpreter) So this ruling is simply a long-delayed appointment with justice. It's long been known that Berlusconi is a notorious outlaw, and sooner or later he had to end up in trouble.

POGGIOLI: Ever since he entered politics, Berlusconi has polarized the country. For two decades the left and the right have been waging what's been called a verbal civil war. But after an electoral stalemate last February, the two antagonists were more or less forced to form an awkward governing coalition. The misalliance was created in order to try to deal with Italy's severe economic crisis. But old animosities have prevented the governing parties from achieving much of substance.

Berlusconi's conviction is likely to further weaken the coalition. Many within the center-left Democratic Party have already signaled they don't want to govern together with a convicted politician. As millions of Italians now head off for what is considered the sacred August vacation, there's little chance of an immediate government collapse. The real test of the government's stability could come in the fall. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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