ROME (AP) — Thousands of supporters of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi rallied in a northern Italian city Saturday to protest the media mogul's recent conviction by a Milan appeals court for tax fraud, cheering their hero as police in riot gear separated them from jeering opponents.
The backers turned out for the "Everyone for Silvio" rally by his Freedom People party in a square outside the cathedral in Brescia, a small industrial city that is a bastion of the conservative leader's political support. As some arrived, waving pro-Berlusconi banners, some detractors shouted "jail, jail." Helmeted police holding plastic body shields moved in between the noisy camps to prevent any physical violence.
The appellate court in its ruling Wednesday also upheld a four-year prison term and a five-year ban from political office.
Berlusconi will appeal to a higher court and currently serves in Parliament. The statute of limitations could run out on the case before the final appeal runs its course, which would essentially make the conviction fall by the wayside.
"There are politicized magistrates blinded by prejudice and hatred toward me," Berlusconi said. "I want to send them a clear message from here: you can do anything to me, but there is one thing you cannot do -- be the leader of the Freedom People, as long as millions of Italians want that."
The billionaire businessman, who jumped into politics two decades ago by forming his own center-right party, has long blamed his many criminal cases on prosecutors he contends side with the left. Detractors say his former governments made laws tailor-made to help his judicial woes, including one that said premiers can cite official duties as a "legitimate impediment" to put off trial hearings, delaying the end of trials and making it more likely statute of limitations could kick in.
The rally had been originally set as a campaign event for Berlusconi's party candidate in Brescia's upcoming mayoral election. But the 76-year-old former cruise ship entertainer instead rattled off a litany of his woes with justice, and pledged that he would use his center-right forces' role as major coalition partner in center-left Premier Enrico Letta's new government to battle for speedy reform of Italy's justice system, which he derided as a "infernal meat-grinder."
"Unfortunately, the magistrates never pay for their errors," Berlusconi said. His supporters jumped up and down in cheering approval, while his opponents booed, and held up a sign asking if he feared justice.
He was forced to resign in 2011 under the pressure of financial markets during the eurozone sovereign debt crisis. But Berlusconi told the rally he wouldn't be pushed aside.
"I am here, I am here, I am here, and will remain here more determined than before," Berlusconi said, speaking non-stop and off-the-cuff for nearly an hour in a remarkable show of vigor.
In apparent reference to the magistrates he brands as political enemies, he added: "If someone is trying to intimidate me, they will be disappointed and are badly mistaken. They don't know me, and they don't know you," he said to his supporters.
Berlusconi, engineering a political comeback that has seen his popularity steadily rebounded in opinion polls, saw his forces win enough seats in Parliament in elections earlier this year to make his People of Freedom party the main coalition partner in Letta's fledging government. That made Berlusconi the coalition kingmaker at a time when the nation is counting on action to create jobs and enact political reform.
Letta's center-left forces, while winning a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, failed to control the Senate, forcing the Democratic Party, after weeks of embarrassing infighting, to forge an alliance with Berlusconi. In a bid for party unity, the Democrats elected a new party secretary Saturday, choosing former left-wing union leader, Guglielmo Epifani in hopes of reinvigorating grass-root support.
Speaking about the rally in Brescia, Epifani told his party it needed to work for the good of the country, and not to safeguard personal interests, as he implied Berlusconi does.
But Berlusconi's supporters billed the rally as a pro-democracy event, dismissing criticism that its aim was to help defend Berlusconi's interests in his judicial problems.
Rally participants came "to say a flat 'no' to the political use of justice," said Mariastella Gelmini, who had served as a Cabinet minister for Berlusconi. "It's a problem regarding democracy, and not just Silvio Berlusconi," Gelmini said, interviewed at the rally by Sky TG24 TV.
The show of support comes as another crucial verdict by a criminal court nears. Berlusconi is on trial in Milan on charges he paid an underage Moroccan teen for sex during infamous "bunga-bunga" parties at his villa and then used his office while premier to try to cover it up. Prosecutors are set to wrap up closing arguments on Monday.
Berlusconi has denied ever paying for sex and both he and the woman, Karima el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby, deny having any sexual contact. A verdict could come later this month.
Berlusconi has been waging a publicity offensive to help his judicial case.
In an interview given to one of his media empire's three TV networks, Canale 5, Berlusconi insisted that the dinners he used to hold at his private residences were innocent entertainment, not what prosecutors described as "bunga bunga" parties with young women the main guests. The interview, to be broadcast on Sunday night, lets viewers see the dining room and basement space where guests danced, Canale 5 said.
One detractor in the crowd held up a sign saying "Your orgies are numbered."