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Berlusconi's defense seeks overturn of conviction

Frances d'Emilio, Associated Press

Francesca Pascale, girlfriend of Italian former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, holds her dog as she leaves his residence in Rome, Wednesday, July 31, 2013. Berlusconi is waiting in his home in Rome for the decision that will change his political fate as Italy's highest court hears arguments in the former premier's fraud conviction. Berlusconi has been convicted of tax fraud in a complex TV rights transaction for his Mediaset network, and sentenced to four-years in prison with a five-year ban on public office. This is his final appeal. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

ROME (AP) -- Silvio Berlusconi's reinforced defense team made its final arguments Wednesday before Italy's highest court, asking it to overturn a tax fraud conviction that threatens to halt the three-time former premier's 20-year political career.

The highly anticipated decision could weaken the fragile coalition government of Premier Enrico Letta, which is struggling to pass measures to help Italy out of recession. A ruling was expected later Wednesday or Thursday.

Berlusconi has urged supporters not to let the decision interfere with the government, but analysts warn that the situation is volatile. Already center-right lawmakers have slowed work in Parliament to protest the high court's decision to take the case in July instead of the fall.

Berlusconi and three others were convicted in October of tax fraud in the purchase of TV rights for Berlusconi's Mediaset network. Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in prison with a five-year ban on public office, which was confirmed on appeal.

If that is upheld by Italy's highest court, Berlusconi would lose his Senate seat and be barred from running in elections for a public office during the ban.

The state prosecutor on Tuesday recommended shortening the public office ban to three years — which Berlusconi defense lawyer Franco Coppi told reporters indicates a "blatant error" in the sentencing.

Berlusconi's defense team — long-time defender Niccolo Ghedini and Coppi, an appellate expert — began what was expected to be several hours of arguments on Wednesday afternoon.

"Missing from the fabric of the sentence is evidence that Berlusconi could have participated in the crime," Ghedini said. He argued that the lower court concluded Berlusconi was involved in the purchase of rights to air Hollywood productions on his television networks "because he is a sharp businessman. How could he have not known the prices were inflated?"

The defendants were convicted of a scheme to inflate the prices of the TV rights and to pocket the difference.

Earlier, lawyers for the other three defendants made their case.

At one point, Chief Justice Antonio Esposito grew impatient with the exhaustive arguments, telling a lawyer for one of the defendants: "We have read everything."