When former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in jail for tax fraud last summer, many in Italy bet that the embattled billionaire would never see a day in jail.
But that ruling — the first definitive conviction after years of trials, which ranged in charges from corruption and collusion with the mafia to soliciting sex from an underage prostitute — restored at least some confidence in a judicial system Berlusconi had successfully eluded for years, despite his frequent claims that “leftist” Italian judges were on a witch hunt to get him.
If they were, they never quite got him, not even this time.
Berlusconi's original sentence was reduced to one year under a government plan to reduce crowding in Italian prisons. On Tuesday, Berlusconi — who at 77 was widely considered too old for jail — was sentenced to spend that year not under house arrest but by doing part-time community service at a home for elderly citizens.
At a pace of four hours a week, the community service will add up to a little less than a month-long sentence over the course of the year.
The photo below, shared by Italian newspaper La Repubblica, shows a rough calculation of how much time the former prime minister will actually “serve” — about seven full days.
It was not immediately clear what exactly Berlusconi — who will likely be older than several residents of the senior home where he is to serve his sentence — will be doing there.
The center also serves people with disabilities, but the director of the foundation that runs it said that the former prime minister will likely be expected to work with the center’s senior residents, though he declined to provide details.
But online forums were abuzz with derision and speculation, with some wondering how he might “entertain” the elderlies and others suggesting that he’ll find a way to turn the experience into fodder for a future political campaign.
“This is what the elderly assisted by Berlusconi will look like,” one Twitter user wrote, in a not-so-veiled reference to the former leader’s reputation for sex scandals.
“Poor seniors. He’s going to use their solitude and suffering for his next campaign,” another user tweeted, referring to the elderly residents of the center.
“Regular citizens go to jail for a lot less,” Massimo d’Alema, another former prime minister and Berlusconi’s political rival said on Italian television, adding he nonetheless respects the judiciary’s work.
“In Italy, tax fraud is convenient,” another Italian politician said in reaction to the sentence.
Berlusconi, who was already banned from holding public office for two years and expelled from the senate as a result of the conviction, was also barred from leaving his home region of Lombardy as part of Tuesday’s sentence, with the exception of authorized travel to Rome “from Tuesday to Thursday, returning to his residence in Lombardy by 11 PM on Thursday," according to a statement by the sentencing judge.
His lawyers, who had lobbied against the house arrests demanded by the prosecution, called the sentence “balanced” and respectful of "the demands of president Berlusconi’s political activity,” referring to the role the former prime minister still holds within his own party.
On Monday, he was reportedly spotted dining with current Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi — a clear sign, to some, that his influence in Rome is there to stay.
Barred from office In Italy, Berlusconi has nonetheless continued to exert huge sway on Italian politics and is turning his eye abroad. He has said he will run in next month’s European Union elections, though his eligibility to be sent by his party as a representative has been widely questioned. Tuesday's sentence to restricted movement is expected to limit that effort, some said.
But Tuesday’s sentence also sparked indignation and ridicule.
Some laughed off the sentence as a “miserable end” to the fallen leader’s reign, while others questioned why the seniors at the center where Berlusconi will serve will be made to pay for his crimes.
“I don’t understand why these poor seniors have to serve the real sentence. What horrible crime did they commit?” a Twitter user asked, reflecting the spirit of most social media commentators.
“My grandfather doesn’t want to go to the senior center anymore,” another user tweeted. “He’s scared to run into Berlusconi.”
While this sentence might be a partial victory, Berlusconi hasn't had a great week.
Official figures released earlier this week showed that Italy's recession — or perhaps Berlusconi's own antics — finally took a toll on the billionaire's wealth. Or at least the one he declared in tax returns.
While he remains one of the richest men in the country, his reported income took a 31 million-euro plunge in the 2012 tax year, for which figures were just made public: it dropped from more than 35 million in 2011 to 4.5 million in 2012.
But then again, the guy was just convicted of tax fraud, so who knows.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi