Silvio Berlusconi has completed his last day of community service after his sentence for tax fraud was reduced due to good behavior — but the former Italian prime minister and media tycoon now faces yet another round in his long fight over charges he paid for sex with an underage prostitute.
The three-time prime minister had been ordered to perform a year of weekly public service — a sentence already much criticized as overly lenient — but finished with 45 days to spare following a controversial court order.
Convicted in 2012 for the 7.3 million euro ($7.9m) fraud through his company Mediaset, Berlusconi was initially sentenced to four years in prison, accompanied by a six-year ban from holding public office. His sentence was automatically shortened to one year on account of high incarceration rates. Those convicted of crimes that are over the age of 70 are given the option of serving their time either through house arrest, or a year of community service. Berlusconi, at 78 years old, chose community service.
The perma-tanned billionaire was assigned 4 hours of weekly service with Alzheimer's patients at the Isituto Sacra Famiglia in Cesano Boscone, just outside Milan. Director Paolo Pigni insisted that the clinic took the assignment seriously and that Berlusconi's time was properly served, saying in a statement that he performed "activities that a volunteer generally does, which don't need any particular professional training."
Commenting on Berlusconi's shortened sentence, Francesco Todano, a lawyer in Palermo, told VICE News that "technically it's legal, but morally it doesn't make sense." But, he added, "the scandal isn't that he's getting off early, the scandal is that he only got a year's time for millions [of euros] worth of tax evasion."
Berlusconi has ostensibly been barred from political life under the Severino Law, which went into effect in 2012 as an anti-corruption measure and prevents Italian politicians from holding office or participating in elections for 6 years if they are convicted of a crime. But while he has been expelled from his seat in the Senate, he has been able to remain politically active in a non-official position as the leader of his party, Forza Italia.
While shortening a sentence for good behavior is standard procedure, many believe that an exception will also be found for Berlusconi's six-year exile from political office. This past December Prime Minister Matteo Renzi introduced into the fiscal code "Articolo 19-Bis" which allows for tax evasion up to 3 percent of a person's taxable income. Whether this can retroactively be applied to Berlusconi's situation has yet to be decided.
"Berlusconi is returning but he never left," Beppe Grillo, leader of the opposition 5 Star Movement, posted on his blog this weekend. "Booted from the Senate by the 5 Star Movement, he's come back with the help of the Nazarean," referring to Renzi. Grillo went on to describe Berlusconi as a "convicted felon, [the] leader of a party born with the help of the mafia, that's benefited from ad personam laws for the prosperity of his businesses."
Worth noting is that Beppe Grillo is also a convicted felon, being convicted of manslaughter for a car accident in 1982 that took the lives of three of his passengers. He has subsequently promised never to nominate himself for a seat in the Italian Parliament.
"The government will have to make sure that any new rule does not look like an ad personam law. A rule adopted to protect specifically Berlusconi," Vincenzo Scarpetta, a policy analyst for OpenEurope, told VICE News. "If Matteo Renzi wants to present himself as the man who wants to clean up Italian politics, I don't think his government can afford to be seen as passing legislation in favor of Berlusconi."
According to a recent Piepoli opinion poll, Berlusconi's Forza Italia is currently ranked 4th in national popularity, having just slipped behind the Northern League. "The fact that he's now served his sentence is significant because now he can take part in public life, he can be more active as the party leader," Scarpetta said. "Berlusconi's role as leader and founding father of Forza Italia is essential. The moment he left to serve his sentence, support in opinion polls dropped."
As for Berlusconi's personal development, when asked whether he had been rehabilitated during his time serving at Sacra Famiglia, he responded: "Do I feel rehabilitated? No." But, he added, "the encounter with Sacra Famiglia in Cesano Boscone, the time passed with the sick, with the volunteers, with the health and social workers has been a touching experience and represented a serene time off. For this reason I intend to continue this experience and commitment."
Manuela Cuttitta, a Sicilian teacher in between jobs, commented to VICE News: "He finished his time, and now he wants to go back? What a joke!"
But the prospect of yet another Berlusconi comeback could be knocked down by Italy's highest court. With the Mediaset case finished and his time served, Berlusconi must tomorrow begin the process anew at the Court of Cassation. This time for allegedly sleeping with then-17-year-old prostitute Karima El Mahroug, or "Ruby the Heartstealer," at a "Bunga Bunga" orgy party. Already found guilty once and sentenced to seven years of prison time, but later acquitted, prosecutors will ask for the conviction to be reinstated in what will be the case's final appeal.