Italy's Berlusconi takes fight against ban from office to European court

By Gilbert Reilhac
FILE PHOTO: Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi gestures during EPP European People's Party meeting in Fiuggi, Italy, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

By Gilbert Reilhac

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Lawyers for Silvio Berlusconi argued on Wednesday at the European Court of Human Rights against his ban from holding public office, hoping for a green light that will allow him to run for prime minister at Italy's election early next year.

In a hearing before the Strasbourg court, the four-times prime minister appealed against his banishment from holding public office that followed a 2013 tax fraud conviction. It is supposed to remain in place until 2019.

The billionaire media tycoon was widely written off after he quit as prime minister in 2011 amid a sex scandal involving his "bunga bunga" parties, while Italian bond yields surged to unsustainable levels at the height of the euro zone debt crisis.

However, the 81-year-old Berlusconi has made a remarkable comeback after open heart surgery last year and his Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party is now the lynchpin of a center-right coalition which leads in opinion polls ahead of the election.

The "Berlusconi versus Italy" case is being heard by 17 judges who make up the court's Grand Chamber, which is used for particularly important and complex matters. Berlusconi has hired a top London law firm to represent him.

At the end of the hearing Edward Fitzgerald, a lawyer for Berlusconi, told reporters an "injustice" had taken place in the Italian courts.

"Basic procedural guarantees were lacking for doing something as massive and draconian as depriving an elected official of his electoral mandate, and the people who elected him of their right to be represented by the person they chose."

The court will not issue a verdict on Wednesday, and even if it eventually decides in favor of Berlusconi the ruling may not come in time for him to run in the election, which must be held by May next year.

HUNG PARLIAMENT

In an interview on Wednesday with la Repubblica newspaper, Berlusconi said he would still be campaigning for his party whether he can stand for office or not.

"Irrespective of whether I can stand, I'll be a player and I'll bring the center-right to power," he said. Berlusconi was not present at the hearing.

Berlusconi argues that because the tax fraud took place many years before the 2013 Italian law that bars him from running for office was passed, the legislation is being applied retroactively and is therefore illegitimate.

Berlusconi received a four-year prison sentence in August 2013 for organizing a complex scheme to illegally lower the tax bill of his Mediaset media company.

Three of the four years were immediately waived due to an amnesty to relieve prison overcrowding, and he was allowed to serve the remaining year in community service, helping out in an old people's home.

After the conviction, Berlusconi was expelled from Rome's Senate, or upper house of parliament.

With or without Berlusconi, the election is expected to produce a hung parliament. The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement leads in opinion polls with around 28 percent of the vote, followed by the ruling center-left Democratic Party on about 25 percent.

The center-right bloc is made up of Forza Italia and the anti-immigrant Northern League, each on around 14 percent, and the right-wing Brothers of Italy, with around 5 percent.

(Writing by Gavin Jones, Steve Scherer and Isla Binnie in Rome; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, William Maclean)