Berlusconi sex conviction raises tension in Letta government

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Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta is facing discord among parliamentary supporters after his coalition partner, Silvio Berlusconi, was convicted of paying a minor for sex and sentenced to seven years in prison.

The verdict, announced yesterday by Judge Giulia Turri in Milan, was criticized by Berlusconi party members Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano and parliamentary chief whip Renato Brunetta. Letta's own Democratic Party said it would respect the judge's decision. Berlusconi, a 76-year-old billionaire and former premier, has said he is innocent and remains free as he prepares his appeal.

The appeals process could take years, and Berlusconi may be spared prison because offenders over the age of 70 are often given house arrest if their verdicts are upheld. Still, the legal battle is exposing fault lines in the coalition of convenience that Letta assembled just two months ago.

"Letta's going to have to fight very hard to keep his boat on course," said James Walston, a professor at the American University in Rome. The ruling "makes the Berlusconi supporters all the more hyped up and angry, and they're going to be a lot tougher on completely irrelevant issues."

Alfano, also interior minister, said the verdict went against common sense and caused "deep bitterness and immense pain" to the People of Liberty party he leads with Berlusconi. Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin called the sentence "unbelievable." Brunetta said in an e-mailed statement that People of Liberty, or PDL, would fight the decision alongside Berlusconi.

Perjury charges

One member of Letta's government, Deputy Foreign Minister Bruno Archi, was dragged further into court proceedings yesterday. Archi was among the more than 30 witnesses against whom Judge Turri urged prosecutors to seek perjury charges.

Letta is scheduled to meet Berlusconi this evening in an effort to build consensus around the premier's plan for tax cuts and stimulus measures. He will meet Guglielmo Epifani, head ofDemocratic Party, before seeing Berlusconi.

Italian 10-year bond yields fell 9 basis points to 4.74 percent at 9:26 a.m. in Rome after rising to a three-and-a-half month high yesterday. Shares in Mediaset SpA (MS), the broadcasting company founded and controlled by Berlusconi, rose 2 percent to 2.44 euros ($3.21). Milan-based Mediaset fell 5.3 percent yesterday.

The verdict occupied the front sections of Italy's main newspapers, with most, including La Repubblica and Corriere Della Sera, saying the sentence was tougher than expected. Emilio Fede, a former anchor at one of Mediaset's television stations, said in an interview with Repubblica that the live broadcast of the sentence "brought tears to my eyes." Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi's brother, ran a banner headline "Butchery."

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