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Berlusconi appeals case to European rights court

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FRANCES D'EMILIO | September 8, 2013 11:40 AM EST | AP

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ROME — Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi is turning to Europe's human rights court in a bid to avoid a ban on public office and other punishments for his tax fraud conviction, the media mogul's aides said Sunday.

The politician and media magnate was found guilty of artificially inflating the amounts paid for film rights by his Mediaset empire to reduce the company's tax liabilities. Berlusconi claims he is an innocent victim of magistrates who sympathize with the left, but the verdict was upheld by Italy's top criminal court last month.

His top aide, Angelino Alfano, said the petition to the Strasbourg, France-based tribunal "shows that the Berlusconi case isn't closed."

Alfano didn't say when or on what grounds the petition to the European rights court was filed. But, `'we are really confident, that at the European level, we can reach a finding of innocence that so far in Italy hasn't been possible," he said.

Italy's Court of Cassation confirmed a four-year prison term – though Berlusconi is unlikely to actually serve it – and also ordered a Milan appeals court to determine the length of a ban on serving in public office from one to three years.

A Senate panel Monday starts formally discussing if Berlusconi must surrender his Senate seat. That deliberation isn't based on the ban ordered by the Cassation Court, but a 2012 law says those sentenced to more than two years in prison are ineligible to hold public office for six years.

The president of the Senate panel insisted its work would go forward without waiting for a decision from Strasbourg.

`'What will we do if it (the court) takes 10 years to evaluate" Berlusconi's bid? Dario Stefano, a left-wing senator, asked Rome daily Il Messaggero. `'I believe that law mandates us to vote" now on whether Berlusconi loses his seat.

Eventually, the entire Senate will vote on whether to strip Berlusconi of his seat.

Berlusconi's lawyers have contended that because the tax fraud occurred many years before the law was made, the media mogul shouldn't be kicked out of Parliament.

The human rights courts rejects most petitions, but if it does take up Berlusconi's recourse and rule in his favor, Italy would be expected to abide by the ruling, since its decisions are binding on the 47 countries, including Italy, in the Council of Europe. If a country ignores the ruling, in theory, it could be ejected from the council. But that has never happened, and in practice, the court's power is essentially a way to shame countries into doing what it rules is the right thing.

The court has an appeals process, so any decision in Strasbourg could take a long time before it is final.

The tax conviction isn't Berlusconi's only legal issue. An appeals trial is expected to take up Berlusconi's conviction in June by a Milan court of paying for sex with a minor and then pressuring public officials to cover it up. He denies the charges. The lower court sentenced him to seven years in prison and ordered a lifetime ban on holding public office.

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Sarah DiLorenzo contributed to this report from Paris.