* Verdict could finally stifle Berlusconi's political career
* Ruling threatens fragile Letta government
* Court adjourns after first day
By Roberto Landucci and Barry Moody
ROME, July 30 Italy's supreme court on Tuesday
began hearing Silvio Berlusconi's last appeal against a jail
sentence and ban from public office in a case which could
endanger the country's shaky coalition government if the
conviction is confirmed.
On the first day of the hearing, public prosecutor Antonello
Mura rejected most of Berlusconi's arguments that a lower appeal
court verdict convicting him of tax fraud was flawed, but
requested a reduction of his ban from public office to three
years from five on technical legal grounds.
He asked the five supreme court judges to confirm a one year
jail term on Berlusconi.
The case was adjourned on Tuesday night until Wednesday when
the court is expected to hear counter-arguments from the
four-times prime minister's defence team, with a verdict
expected by Thursday.
If the court rejects Berlusconi's appeal it will be the
first definitive conviction for the media mogul in dozens of
court cases and mark the end of two decades in which he has
dominated politics through his media power and political skill.
It could also plunge the government - an uneasy coalition of
Enrico Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and
Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) - into crisis
and bring renewed uncertainty to the euro zone third's largest
economy, with potential fallout right across the bloc.
Moderate politicians have urged the court to delay the
ruling until September for the sake of political stability.
The 76-year-old media magnate is making his final appeal
against the jail sentence and ban from office handed down by
lower courts for the fraudulent purchase of broadcasting rights
by his Mediaset media empire. Three other people were
also convicted in the case.
If definitively convicted, Berlusconi would not normally go
to prison because of his age but would have to do community
service or serve his sentence at home.
Berlusconi accuses leftwing magistrates of abusing their
powers to try to bring him down in more than two dozen court
cases since he stormed to power for the first time in 1994.
The case was fast-tracked to be heard by a special summer
session of the supreme court to avoid part of any sentence being
annulled by the statute of limitations.
Although they are waiting for a signal from Berlusconi, PDL
hawks have called for everything from a mass resignation of the
party's government ministers to blocking Italy's motorways if
the court rules against him.
The departure of Berlusconi from parliament if he is
convicted would also raise major questions about the future of
his party, which depends on his charisma and wealth.
But a greater risk to the government could come from
Letta's faction-ridden PD, with many members already deeply
unhappy about being in a coalition with their old enemy. Some
may refuse to continue if he is found guilty.
However, both President Giorgio Napolitano, who dragged the
parties into a coalition in April after a two-month crisis that
followed inconclusive elections, and Letta himself are adamant
that Italy cannot afford more instability as it struggles to
climb out of its worst postwar recession.
Both major parties may be reluctant to precipitate an
election that might produce an even more chaotic result than the
February vote in which the populist 5-Star Movement of comedian
Beppe Grillo surged to prominence.
Berlusconi has kept his party hawks on a tight leash for
months, saying the government must continue. Political sources
say this stance was influenced by his lawyers, keen to avoid
upsetting the supreme court judges. The mercurial magnate's
reaction if he is found guilty is uncertain.
Berlusconi's lawyers have filed 50 objections to the supreme
court, which will rule only on legal procedure and whether the
lower appeals court properly justified its sentence.
The court has three choices: convict Berlusconi, acquit him
or send the case back to the appeals court due to legal errors.
Judicial sources said the prosecutor's request to reduce the
ban from public office was because the lower appeal court had
made an error in using penal instead of tax law in deciding the
Even if Berlusconi is found guilty, the ban from holding
public office depends on a vote by his peers in the Senate which
could take weeks or months.
Berlusconi is also appealing in a lower court against a
seven-year jail sentence in June for abuse of office and paying
for sex with Moroccan-born nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug,
alias "Ruby the Heartstealer", when she was underage.