ROME (AP) -- Italy's highest criminal court on Wednesday defended its decision to move up former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's tax fraud appeal to the front of the line, saying it had to move quickly to schedule the case before the statute of limitations expired.
Berlusconi's allies have denounced the decision by the Court of Cassation to schedule the appeal hearing July 30, and have threatened to paralyze parliament in protest. The July 30 hearing represents a remarkably tight turnaround given Berlusconi's lawyers only deposited the appeal paperwork June 19. Usually it takes months to schedule such a hearing in Italy's notoriously slow justice system.
The case involves Berlusconi's Mediaset empire, and represents a major threat to the billionaire media mogul's political life: Berlusconi risks being barred from holding public office for five years if the conviction is upheld. The stakes for Italy's fragile government are equally high: Berlusconi's allies have threatened to paralyze parliament for three days to protest what they consider an attempt by Italy's judiciary to eliminate Berlusconi from political life.
Premier Enrico Letta has said he doesn't believe the court's accelerated calendar will affect his government. But Berlusconi's support is crucial to the government's survival. His center-right forces are allied with Letta's Democratic Party in a grand coalition, and although Berlusconi holds no governmental posts, he remains influential.
In May, an appeals court in Milan upheld Berlusconi's tax fraud conviction, four-year prison sentence and bar on holding public office for five years. He was convicted in a scheme that involved inflating the price his Mediaset media empire paid for TV rights to U.S. movies and pocketing the difference. Berlusconi has said he did nothing wrong and has accused Milan magistrates of pursuing politically motivated cases against him.
Berlusconi has faced dozens of legal cases in his two decades in politics, but has usually been acquitted or seen the charges dismissed because of the statute of limitations had expired.
The Cassation judges said Wednesday they were only following the "absolutely normal practice" in scheduling the final appeals hearing before the statute of limitations expires Aug. 1 on one of the charges involving alleged tax evasion dating from 2002. Another charge involving alleged evasion in 2003 expires in the summer of 2014.
The Mediaset case isn't the only one hanging over the ex-premier. Last month, Berlusconi was sentenced to seven years and banned from politics for life for paying an underage prostitute for sex during infamous "bunga bunga" parties and forcing public officials to cover it up. He denies wrongdoing and is appealing that verdict as well.
Given Berlusconi's age and other circumstances, it's unlikely that he would serve any prison time if his sentences are upheld by the high court. In Italy, sentences are only considered final after two levels of appeals are exhausted.
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