MILAN Silvio Berlusconi's appeal of his conviction for abuse of office and paying for sex with a minor began on Friday, opening a new legal battle that could severely limit any active political role for the former Italian prime minister.
Berlusconi was convicted last year for paying for sex with former nightclub dancer Kharima El Mahroug, better known by the stage name "Ruby the Heartstealer", when she was under 18, and of abusing his authority to get her released from police custody over unrelated theft accusations.
The four-time prime minister, still the most influential politician on Italy's center right, was handed a seven-year jail sentence and banned from holding public office. He will not serve any time in jail unless his conviction is upheld and the two-stage appeals process is exhausted. The appeals trial that started Friday was the first part of the process.
The final verdict in the so-called Ruby trial could have implications for Berlusconi and his freedom to engage in political activity beyond the case itself.
Berlusconi received a definitive conviction for tax fraud last year and was stripped of his seat in parliament. He was given a four-year jail sentence, but that was commuted to a year's community service under a general amnesty, leaving him largely free to campaign in elections and play a political role.
However, a second definitive conviction in a criminal trial would violate the terms of the amnesty. That could mean Berlusconi would have to serve time under house arrest.
He denies any wrongdoing and says he is being hounded by left-wing magistrates for political reasons.
Ruby herself has always denied having sex with Berlusconi and defended him on Friday in an interview published in Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the 77-year-old media tycoon's family.
"The truth is Berlusconi has respected me more than any other man I have met in nightclubs and discos," she told the newspaper. "They gave him seven years for nothing."
(Reporting by Emilio Parodi; Editing by Larry King)