ROME (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he would not flee Italy and was ready to go to jail rather than face house arrest or community service if a court upholds his conviction for tax fraud next week.
Italy's highest appeals court will on Tuesday hear Berlusconi's final appeal against a four-year prison sentence and a ban from public office for tax fraud in connection with the purchase of broadcasting rights by his television network Mediaset.
He told Libero, a newspaper which supports him, that he would never become a fugitive like the late Bettino Craxi, a former prime minister who fled to Tunisia to escape a jail sentence for corruption and spent the last years of his life in exile.
"I will not go into exile, like Bettino Craxi was forced to. I will also not accept being handed over to social services, like a criminal that has to be re-educated," he said in comments published on Sunday.
If the Court of Cassation rejects Berlusconi's appeal he could serve only one year of his sentence due to a 2006 amnesty law, and at the age of 76 he would likely be granted house arrest, but he challenged judges to put him behind bars.
"If they convict me - if they assume that responsibility - then I'll go to jail," he said.
Later on Sunday a statement from Berlusconi's office said he had not given a formal interview to Libero but that the paper had interpreted a chat with the center-right leader. The comments remained on Berlusconi's Facebook page.
The media billionaire is accused of inflating the price paid for television rights using offshore companies under his control, and skimming off part of that money to create illegal slush funds.
He said he was optimistic that his appeal against the tax fraud conviction would succeed on Tuesday.
"My lawyers have proposed 50 objections to the decision of the lower court of appeal and the Court of Cassation has recognized before that I did not participate in company decisions and had no direct role in managing Mediaset," he said.
A decision by the Cassation Court to fast track the final ruling has aggravated tension in Prime Minister Enrico Letta's squabbling left-right coalition government.
Berlusconi's lawyers had not expected a ruling until late in the year but the court said it had been forced to call a special summer sitting because part of the case will expire under the statute of limitations on August 1.
Berlusconi, who leads the People of Freedom party, told Libero he would not bring down the government, but he believed Letta's Democratic Party would not want to rule with a party whose chief is under arrest and banned from public office.
Berlusconi is also appealing against a separate conviction for abuse of office and paying for sex with a minor, for which a lower court handed him a seven-year jail sentence in June.
The scandal-ridden mogul, who argues that he is the victim of persecution by left-wing magistrates, told Libero he had not slept for a month due to his legal headaches.
(Reporting by Catherine Hornby; Editing by Louise Ireland)