ROME (AFP) - An Italian court on Monday sentenced Silvio Berlusconi to seven years in jail and banned the former premier from public office after convicting him of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power to hide the liaison.
Berlusconi attacked "an incredible sentence, of a violence never seen or heard before, handed down to try and eliminate me from political life," while his lawyers said they would appeal.
The sentence went beyond the request of prosecutors, who had called for the billionaire, 76, to serve six years, and could spark serious tensions within Italy's uneasy grand coalition government.
"I was truly convinced I would be absolved because there was absolutely no possibility of being found guilty based on the evidence," Berlusconi said in a note, adding: "I am utterly innocent." The sentence was "completely illogical," his lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said, amid a clamour from supporters accusing the Milan judges of persecuting the three-time former prime minister.
The verdict brings to a climax a two-year trial which kicked off a media frenzy - amid allegations of strippers dressed as nuns and erotic party games with topless girls - and sparked cheers and applause from anti-Berlusconi protesters outside the court.
The media magnate's cronies, many of whom took to Twitter in disgust, described the verdict as "utterly shameful" and "a political verdict, a coup d'etat."
Berlusconi's spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti said it confirmed "the bid to eliminate Berlusconi from the political scene... but the attempt, which has gone beyond the limits of credibility, will fail."
Berlusconi's daughter, Marina, chairperson of his holding company Fininvest, said it was "an absurd spectacle which had nothing to do with justice" and the guilty verdict "was written from the start."
Dr James Walston, politics professor at the American University of Rome, said the conviction would "accentuate already existing divisions within the cabinet."
"Berlusconi's supporters are defending him even more passionately than before. They are spitting fire and blood," he said.
Interior Minister Angelo Alfano, the secretary of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party, said the verdict was "worse than the worst case scenario" and urged him to "soldier on" - a possible reference to his support for the government.
The coalition relies on the support of the PDL, and observers had warned the capricious billionaire could pull the rug out from under the government if he felt it was not offering him legal protection.
The sentence will be suspended until all appeals have been exhausted, a process likely to take years.
Berlusconi's age also means he is unlikely to ever see the inside of a prison cell because of lenient sentencing guidelines in Italy for people over the age of 70.
The trial relates to crimes committed in 2010 when Berlusconi was prime minister, and revolves around what prosecutors have described as erotic parties held at his luxury residence outside Milan.
Berlusconi was accused of paying for sex on several occasions with Moroccan-born Karima El-Mahroug, a then 17-year-old exotic dancer nicknamed "Ruby the Heart Stealer".
He was also accused of having called a police station to pressure for Ms El-Mahroug's release from custody when she was arrested for theft.
His defence claimed he believed Ms El-Mahroug was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident, but prosecutors insisted it was a bid to conceal their affair.
While abuse of office was the more serious of the charges, it was the sex with the pole dancer after racy "bunga bunga" evenings in a basement room of his mansion that mesmerised the public.
Ms El-Mahroug described the "bunga bunga" sessions of erotic dancing to interrogators in 2010, saying Berlusconi had picked up the custom from former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Both the flamboyant billionaire and Ms El-Mahroug denied having had sex.
Berlusconi has been involved in a series of legal battles ever since entering politics in the 1990s but multiple cases against him have either been thrown out, expired under a statute of limitations, or had initial convictions overturned on appeal.
The former cruise ship singer has long blamed his legal woes on persecution by "Communist" judges, and lashed out at them again on Monday.
A Milan court last month upheld his conviction for tax fraud connected to his Mediaset empire, confirming the punishment of a year in prison and a five-year ban from public office, frozen pending a second appeal.
Monday's sentence is stiffer than some expected, and sets a worrying precedent just months ahead of a definitive ruling in the tax fraud case - which is expected to fall around October.
"The temperature has gone up for Berlusconi enormously," Dr Walston said.
"He now has to use every weapon in his armoury to get out of the Mediaset conviction," he added.