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Berlusconi offers reassurances about future of Italian government

Silvio Berlusconi has sought to allay fears about the future of Italy’s coalition government. There had been talk that he could bring down the government following his conviction for tax fraud.

The former Italian prime minister told a crowd of several hundred supporters outside of his mansion in Rome that the fragile, three-month old coalition must continue.

"We have said clearly and directly that the government must forge ahead," the billionaire, who leads the conservative People of Freedom party (PdL) said.

"The government must continue to take economic measures and we have said clearly and directly that the parliament must forge ahead to vote for these economic measures," he added, referring to the coalition's efforts to implement measures designed to bring down Italy's massive public debt.

Anger at the judiciary

Berlusconi also took the opportunity to repeat his criticism of the judges who last week upheld a conviction for tax fraud and a four-year prison sentence, which was commuted to one year. He is not expected to actually do any jail time, but instead to serve his sentence under house arrest or doing community service.

"I'm here, I'll remain here and I'm not giving up and we will all continue together this battle for democracy and freedom so that citizens aren't afraid of finding themselves in prison without having done anything wrong," the 76-year-old media mogul said.

Although, the rally was relatively small, with estimates putting the number of people who took part at no more than 2,000, it was enthusiastic, with the former premier's supporters repeatedly breaking out in chants of “Silvio, Silvio”

Berlusconi appeared touched by the show of support.

"Your closeness and your warmth comfort me after all the pain and suffering of the past few days," he said.

Coalition doubts

The court ruling had cast serious doubt over the future of the government of center-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who relies on the support of the PdL for his parliamentary majority.

Following a meeting on Friday, several PdL members threatened to pull out of the government over Berlusconi's conviction. Some have demanded that President Giorgio Napolitano issue a pardon, which the head of state is reported to have rejected.

Thursday's decision marked the first time Berlusconi has been definitively convicted of a crime in his two decades in political office. During this time, he had previously faced a series of fraud and bribery charges, but all of those had been overturned on appeal or expired under the statute of limitations.

In addition to his sentence, Berlusconi is also facing a ban from holding public office, which would force him to give up his seat in the senate.

pfd/lw (Reuters, AFP)