Silvio Berlusconi guilty, but still not finished

Berlusconi has been convicted of paying an underage girl for sex and abuse of public office. Photo: Reuters

Well that, surely, is the end for Silvio Berlusconi, no? Sentenced to 7 years in jail (on top of the four years he’s already received for tax fraud), banned for life from holding public office, assets seized, convicted on all counts of paying for underage sex. How much worse can it get?

But remember, this is Italy. Things aren’t always what they seem in the Italian justice system.

In a UK court he’d be taken from the dock straight to a jail cell, from where he could begin his appeals. The Italians do it the other way around.

Appeal first, serve your sentence later. So, Berlusconi stays free while his lawyers stretch out the appeal process far into the future, hoping that if it goes on for long enough it will bump into the statute of limitations, at which point the whole thing gets dropped.

Karima El Mahroug, better known by her stage name "Ruby the heartstealer", at Milan's court.

In most countries that use a ‘statute of limitations’ in the criminal law (and we don’t) there is a time limit after which the authorities can no longer start proceedings. In Italy it’s a deadline before which the prosecution must finish proceedings. A charter for slow lawyers and endless delays.

So it’s probably not the prison sentence that will bother Berlusconi, it’s the ban from holding public office. If this ban is made to stick, it will fatally undermine his control of the political party he founded, the PDL, and end his political career. To him, this is a real threat.

Parliament and the Government have it in their power to overturn this ban by engineering some form of Parliamentary immunity, but will they do so, and what will be the consequences for the fragile coalition led by Enrico Letta if they don’t?

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been handed a seven-year jail sentence. Credit: Reuters

Letta is from the left-of-centre PD, but he cannot govern without the support of Berlusconi’s MPs. If the rug is pulled and there are fresh elections, the polls suggest the centre-right could very well win, so Letta is on the horns of a particularly painful dilemma. Is reprieving Berlusconi a price worth paying for hanging onto office?

Perhaps the best hope at this stage is that some of Berlusconi’s own MPs abandon him on the grounds they cannot let their country self-immolate to save the skin of one very flawed man. That may happen. If it doesn’t we are in for an interesting few weeks ahead.