ROME (AP) — Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi vowed on Wednesday to stay in politics to keep leftists from power in an impassioned appearance shortly before some of his fellow senators dealt him a setback in his battle to keep his Senate seat despite his tax fraud conviction.
In a pre-recorded video appearance carried by major Italian TV networks, the media mogul appealed emotionally to Italians to help him invigorate his center-right political movement Forza Italia that propelled him into the premier's office two decades ago.
He also insisted in the 16-minute statement that he was "absolutely innocent" of any wrongdoing in the fraud case stemming from the purchase of film rights as well as in the dozens of other criminal proceedings against him during his two decades in politics.
The vote by the Senate election eligibility committee to reject a recommendation by one of his party's senators that Berlusconi keep his seat is only a first step in a complicated process that could stretch out for months before any final action is taken by Parliament's upper house.
But while the process drags on, political tensions threaten the survival of the Italian government, which includes Berlusconi's center-right forces as senior partner. Center-left leader Premier Enrico Letta is struggling to ensure the unusual coalition's continuation as he toils to pull the country out of stubborn recession.
The committee vote late Wednesday stems from a law Parliament passed last year, banning anyone who is sentence to more than two years in prison from holding or serving in office for six years.
The tax fraud conviction, upheld by Italy's top criminal tribunal on Aug. 1, carried a four-year prison sentence.
The pro-Berlusconi recommendation echoed the strategy by Berlusconi's defense team that Italy's Constitutional Court should evaluate the law mandating a six-year ban violates citizens' rights. Berlusconi's lawyers have also appealed to the European human rights court in Strasbourg, France.
Senators from Berlusconi's party and political allies are outnumbered on the Senate committee by center-right forces, so the setback for Berlusconi was widely expected.
At least one more committee vote — this time on a left-wing senator's recommendation that Berlusconi is stripped of his seat — will be held in the weeks ahead before the entire Senate has the final say on whether to defy its own law and let Berlusconi keep his seat.
In his taped appeal, Berlusconi tried to rally his populist base to rally around him. He said he was making a "last call before catastrophe" strikes the country, a reference to the prospect of the left gaining and consolidating power if Berlusconi, the virtually unquestioned leader of the conservatives, can't hold or run for office for the next six years.
"I didn't commit any crime. I am not guilty of anything. I am innocent. I am absolutely innocent," Berlusconi said.
As he has done for years, Berlusconi blamed his judicial woes on magistrates he contends sympathize with the left.
His center-left rivals promptly accused him of ratcheting up of tensions in the government coalition, with Democratic Party leader Guglielmo Epifani trashing Berlusconi's words for their "Cold War tone."
The top criminal court's ruling in August also upheld a one-to-three year ban on holding office meted out to Berlusconi by a lower court. The Senate will have to take up that ban separately, after a Milan appeals court eventually determines the exact duration of the ban. In short, the complicated Senate process to decide whether Berlusconi loses his seat will start all over again.
Since three years are automatically shaved off to relieve prison overcrowding, Berlusconi effectively only needs to serve one year, and because of his age — Berlusconi turns 77 later this month — he can do that under home confinement or perform social services.