Italy court rules hospitalised Berlusconi can attend tax trial

MILAN (REUTERS) - Milan court doctors ruled on Saturday that Silvio Berlusconi was able to attend a tax fraud appeal, rejecting the former prime minister complaint that an eye condition prevented him leaving hospital.

The 76-year-old centre-right leader and media mogul faces a spate of trials this month as he fights for his political future following the inconclusive national election.

On Friday a hearing in a trial where he is accused of having sex with an under-age prostitute was postponed after he entered hospital with an eye problem, despite the prosecutor's complaint that the hospitalisation was merely a delaying tactic.

However, on Saturday the court in the tax fraud case sent inspectors to examine him in the clinic where he was being treated by his private doctor and they ruled that his problem was not a "legitimate impediment" to him appearing in court.

"It's been rejected, we are carrying on," one of Berlusconi's lawyers told Reuters.

Berlusconi's doctor had said the inflammation in his patient's left eye caused him pain and disturbed vision. But the ruling meant the appeals hearing could go ahead on Saturday with or without the defendant being present.

Berlusconi is appealing against a four-year jail sentence for tax fraud in connection with the purchase of broadcasting rights by his television network Mediaset .

Berlusconi denies all wrongdoing and said on Thursday he was the victim of "judicial persecution ... which re-emerges every time there are politically complex moments in the political life of our country".

He fell short of a victory in last month's election, even though he rallied his supporters and performed better than expected. The vote ended with a hung parliament and Italy's president is still struggling to form a new government.

Berlusconi's People of Liberty party (PDL) has organised a pubic rally on March 23 to protest against prosecutors that Berlusconi calls the "cancer of our democracy".

Under Italian law, Berlusconi will not serve any jail time until the appeals process is exhausted.

In the tax fraud case even if the appeals court upholds his previous 4-year jail sentence it could still be overturned by a higher court. Two appeals are standard procedure in Italy's criminal justice system.

Berlusconi was convicted three times during the 1990s, before being either cleared by higher courts or benefiting from the statute of limitations by which cases expire if a final verdict is not reached within a given time period.

On Thursday, he was sentenced to one year in jail over the publication by his family's newspaper of a transcript of a leaked wiretap connected to a banking scandal in 2006.

In that case, the statute of limitations for the charges expires in September, before the appeals process can be completed, legal sources said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.