Thousands of supporters of Silvio Berlusconi have rallied to protest against the upholding of a conviction against the former Italian prime minister by a Milan court for tax fraud, cheering their hero as police in riot gear separated them from jeering opponents.
The backers turned out on Saturday for the "Everyone for Silvio" rally by his People of Freedom party (PdL) 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.
Berlusconi was recently convicted by a Milan appeals court for tax fraud, and the appellate court in its ruling on Wednesday also upheld a five-year ban from political office.
Berlusconi said he will appeal to a higher court.
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 politicised magistrates blinded by prejudice and hatred toward me," Berlusconi said.
The rally had been originally set as a campaign event for Berlusconi's party candidate in Brescia's upcoming mayoral election.
There are politicised magistrates blinded by prejudice and hatred toward me
The 76-year-old was forced to resign in 2011 under the pressure of financial markets during the eurozone sovereign debt crisis.
However, he engineered a political comeback that has seen his popularity steadily rebounded in opinion polls.
Berlusconi saw his forces win enough seats in parliament in elections earlier this year to make his party the main coalition partner in Enrico Letta's, the prime minister, 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.
At the rally, he said he would not 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 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."
On Monday, he faces a new hearing in his trial on the charges of paying for sex with nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, alias "Ruby the Heartstealer" when she was under the age of 18.