Italy's Berlusconi contests ban from office to European court

ROME  - Lawyers for Silvio Berlusconi will argue on Wednesday to the European Court of Human Rights against his ban on holding public office, hoping for a green light that will allow him to run for premier at Italy's election early next year.
The four-times prime minister appealed to the Strasbourg court in 2013 after a criminal conviction for tax fraud triggered his expulsion from the Senate and a bar from office until 2019.
The billionaire media tycoon was widely written off after he quit as prime minister in 2011 amid a sex scandal involving his "bunga bunga" parties, while Italian bond yields surged to unsustainable levels at the height of the euro zone debt crisis.
However, the 81-year-old Berlusconi has made a remarkable comeback after recovering from open heart surgery last year and his Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party is now the lynchpin of a centre-right coalition which leads in opinion polls ahead of the election.
The "Berlusconi versus Italy" case will be heard by 17 judges who make up the court's Grand Chamber, which is used for particularly important and complex matters. Berlusconi has hired a top London law firm to represent him.
The court will not issue a verdict on Wednesday, and even if it eventually decides in favour of Berlusconi the ruling may not come in time for him to run in the election, which must be held by May next year.
Berlusconi argues that because the tax fraud took place many years before the 2013 Italian law that bars him from running for office was passed, the legislation is being applied retroactively and is therefore illegitimate.
Berlusconi received a four-year prison sentence in August 2013 for organising a complex scheme to illegally lower the tax bill of his Mediaset media company.
Three of the four years were immediately waived due to an amnesty to relieve prison overcrowding, and he was allowed to serve the remaining year in community service, helping out in an old people's home.
With or without Berlusconi, the election is expected to produce a hung parliament. The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement leads in opinion polls with around 28 percent of the vote, followed by the ruling centre-left Democratic Party on about 25 percent.
The centre-right bloc is made up of Forza Italia and the anti-immigrant Northern League, each on around 14 percent, and the right-wing Brothers of Italy, with around 5 percent.
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