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Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to three years in jail for bribing a senator to switch factions in a move which helped topple the then government in 2008.

The court in southern Italian city of Naples also banned him from holding any public office for five years, the judge said on Wednesday.

But the 78-year-old will not actually have to serve any time in prison because of legal technicalities, his lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, said.

Ghedini slammed the verdict as "unjust and unjustified" but said the case would reach its statute of limitations on November 6.

Since no legal action can be taken after that date, the guilty verdict will have no legal consequences for Berlusconi as there is not enough time for his case to come to be judged on appeal.

"It was a good trial, passionate, but in terms of consequences the imminent expiration date takes all the pathos out of the verdict," said prosecutor Henry John Woodcock.

The case revolved around an alleged plot to destabilise a 2006-08 centre-left government.

Bribes totalling three million euros ($3.3m) were paid through an intermediary to Senator Sergio De Gregorio to get him to leave the coalition of then premier Romano Prodi.

Corporate tax fraud

The idea was to further weaken an already fragile coalition and the defection was widely seen as hurting Prodi's government, which collapsed in 2008, two years after it was elected.

Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party won the resulting election and he served a third term as Italian premier until 2011.

 Berlusconi begins community service

The senator admitted accepting the money.

In summing up the bribery case, prosecutor Vincenzo Piscitelli had told the court the payoff was part of "a colossal economic investment made with the aim of achieving the sole goal that interested Berlusconi, who was obsessed by his desire to kick Prodi out and take his post".

The prosecution had called for a five-year sentence. Berlusconi was not in court to hear the verdict, delivered by tribunal president Isabella Romani.

The case was just one in a string of legal woes for the media tycoon. Earlier this year, he completed a community service order for corporate tax fraud but was cleared of having sex with an under-age dancer known as Ruby the Heart-stealer after judges ruled he could not have known she was a minor.

Source: AFP