Verdict looms in Berlusconi tax fraud trial: Officials

ROME (AFP) - A verdict loomed on Thursday for former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in a tax fraud case that could upset the fragile coalition ruling the eurozone's third largest economy.

After hearing final arguments from the prosecution and the defence this week, judges at Italy's top court retired to consider their decision which is expected from 1500 GMT, court officials said.

The panel of judges has to decide whether or not to uphold a temporary ban from parliament and one year of community service or house arrest for the scandal-tainted billionaire tycoon.

They could also send the case back to appeal.

Security was beefed up in Rome outside the courtroom and Berlusconi's residence, with several riot police vans seen parked nearby.

There have been reports of possible protests planned by both pro- and anti-Berlusconi activists, whichever way the ruling goes.

Even if Berlusconi's conviction is upheld, however, the sentence cannot be implemented until the Senate votes to lift his parliamentary immunity - a process that could take weeks or even months.

The case revolves around Berlusconi's business empire Mediaset - the starting point for his first foray into politics in the early 1990s.

His tumultuous career has been constantly dogged by legal troubles which he says are politically motivated attacks by left-wing prosecutors.

The current trial is Berlusconi's second and final appeal in the case, which first went to trial in 2006.

If he loses, it would be his first definitive conviction since all past rulings against him have either been overturned on appeal or the charges have expired due to Italy's slow justice system.

He is also appealing convictions in other cases for having sex with an underage prostitute, abusing his prime ministerial powers and leaking a police wiretap to damage a political rival.

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