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FILE PHOTO: Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a rally for the regional election in Palermo, Italy, November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Gilbert Reilhac
STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Lawyers for Silvio Berlusconi argued on Wednesday at the European Court of Human Rights against his ban from holding public office, hoping for a green light that will allow him to run for prime minister at national elections early next year.
One of his lawyers told the Strasbourg court that the four-times prime minister had received the sort of justice meted out to gladiators in Rome's ancient Colosseum, as he appealed against the ban that followed a 2013 tax fraud conviction.
The interdiction is not due to expire 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 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 was heard by 17 judges who make up the court's Grand Chamber, which is used for particularly important and complex matters. Berlusconi hired a top London law firm to represent him.
Berlusconi was the victim of "the politics of a Roman amphitheatre in which the fate of the gladiator is determined by how many thumbs go up and how many thumbs go down", his lawyer Edward Fitzgerald told the court.
"Basic procedural guarantees were lacking for doing something as massive and draconian as depriving an elected official of his electoral mandate, and the people who elected him of their right to be represented by the person they chose."
A verdict is not expected for several months. Even if the court 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.
In an interview on Wednesday with la Repubblica newspaper, Berlusconi said he would still be campaigning for his party whether he could stand for office or not.
"Irrespective of whether I can stand, I'll be a player and I'll bring the centre-right to power," he said. Berlusconi was not present at the hearing in this eastern French city.
Berlusconi argues that because the tax fraud took place many years before the 2013 Italian law that barred him from running for office was passed, the legislation was applied retroactively and was therefore illegitimate.
A lawyer representing Italy refuted this on Wednesday, saying Berlusconi's actions had been "disloyal to the state".
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.
After the conviction, Berlusconi was expelled from Rome's Senate, or upper house of parliament.
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.
(Writing by Gavin Jones, Steve Scherer and Isla Binnie in Rome; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, William Maclean and Crispian Balmer)