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By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

ROME — Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was ordered Tuesday to spend a year performing community service among the elderly as his sentence for committing tax fraud at his media conglomerate.

The decision by a Milan judge spares Berlusconi, 77, a sentence of house arrest. But the former premier, who has dominated Italy’s political scene for two decades, will see his movements restricted just as his center-right party gears up for elections to the European Parliament next month.

The billionaire media tycoon was convicted last year in a complex case involving overpayments at his Mediaset television company. In November, he was expelled from the Italian Senate because of his legal problems, despite a vigorous campaign to persuade fellow senators to let him remain.

He was handed a four-year prison sentence for the fraud conviction, which was reduced to one year as part of Italy’s efforts to relieve overcrowding in its jails. Partly in light of Berlusconi’s age, confinement to his home or community service were put forward as alternatives to spending the time behind bars.

Both the prosecution and defense reportedly urged the court to order Berlusconi to perform community service, either among the disabled or the elderly. He must now spend four hours a week working at a center for the elderly, among men and women who are essentially his peers.

He must also spend the majority of his time in Lombardy, in northern Italy, where he lives in a lavish residence. But he is allowed to spend between Tuesday and Thursday of each week in Rome, which could be key to his continuing political ambitions.

Although his conviction bars him from holding office, Berlusconi remains a significant force in Italian public life as the head of his center-right Forza Italia party. The party has fallen out with other conservative groups with which it once formed a coalition, but Berlusconi has been hoping for a strong showing at the polls for the European Parliament at the end of May.

How much campaigning he will be able to accomplish with the constraints imposed upon him remains to be seen. His reputation as a wily operator skilled at going around the rules is legendary here.

Berlusconi, who served as prime minister three times, has consistently maintained his innocence of the many charges that have been laid against him at various trials throughout the years. He insists that his legal woes are the work of left-wing judges determined to bring him down, and has compared the “persecution” he faces to that experienced by Jesus.

Besides his fraud conviction, he has also been found guilty of paying a teenage girl for sex and using the power of his office to try to cover it up. He has appealed that conviction.

afp.com / Alberto Pizzoli

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