ROME Italy's constitutional court on Wednesday rejected a bid by Silvio Berlusconi to block a tax fraud conviction from October, clearing the way for a final verdict this year and deepening the uncertainty facing Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
Berlusconi's lawyers had challenged a ruling in Milan last year that sentenced the 76-year-old media tycoon and leader of the center-right to four years in prison with a five year ban on holding public office after it found him complicit in tax fraud at his Mediaset empire.
They argued that the case was flawed because judges had refused to allow a delay when Berlusconi claimed he was unable to attend a hearing in March 2010 because of his responsibilities as prime minister at the time.
The constitutional court ruled that it was up to the judges of the original case to rule on whether Berlusconi's claim was allowable or not. It also noted that he had been given several opportunities to agree an acceptable court date.
Center-right allies from Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party, which is part of Letta's coalition, have said the case will have no impact on the government. But the closely watched ruling could heighten tensions in the already fragile alliance between traditional rival parties.
A definitive verdict on the tax fraud case will depend on the result of a final appeal hearing expected later this year.
(Reporting By Roberto Landucci. Writing by James Mackenzie.)