ROME Silvio Berlusconi's final appeal against a prison sentence for tax fraud will be heard in court on July 30, defense lawyers said on Tuesday, calling the timetable too hasty.
The former Italian prime minister was sentenced last year to four years' jail with a five year ban on holding public office, for complicity in tax fraud at his Mediaset television empire.
If the verdict against the 76-year-old media tycoon is upheld, he will have no more right of appeal and, although he may avoid jail due to his age, a ban on public office, depriving him of his seat in parliament, could destabilize the government.
Berlusconi's lawyer, Franco Coppi was critical of the speed with which the final hearing has come before the Court of Cassation, something previously expected by year-end.
"I have never seen a hearing programmed as quickly as this. I am astonished," he told Reuters. "This is a real squeeze on the rights of the defense."
The result could have a major impact on the government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta, whose fragile coalition depends on Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom (PDL) party.
Berlusconi is not a minister but plays a decisive behind-the-scenes role in ensuring the stability of the coalition with Letta's center-left Democratic Party (PD), his traditional rivals.
Berlusconi has pledged to continue supporting the coalition but some hardline allies in his party have threatened protests if the verdict goes against him.
The tax fraud trial is only one of a series of legal battles against Berlusconi, who was sentenced last month to seven years' jail for paying for sex with a minor in the "bunga bunga" case involving a teenage nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, alias "Ruby the Heartstealer".
He faces a separate investigation by Naples magistrates into allegations that he bribed a former senator to change sides in 2006 to help bring down the government of center-left prime minister Romano Prodi.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)