Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has pledged to stay on in Italian politics after a Senate committee dealt him a setback in his battle to keep his seat in the assembly despite his tax fraud conviction.

The election-eligibility committee rejected late on Wednesday a recommendation by a senator from Berlusconi's party that he keep his seat.

The decision is only a first step in a complicated process that could stretch out for months before any final action is taken by the upper house.

Berlusconi accused what he described as leftist judges of plotting against him to pervert democracy in a pre-recorded television address on Wednesday.  

"I will always be with you, at your side, expelled from parliament or not. It is not the parliamentary seat that makes a leader," the media mogul said.

"I didn't commit any crime. I am not guilty of anything. I am innocent. I am absolutely innocent."

The former prime minister also called on centre-right voters to rally behind his relaunched Forza Italia party, with which he first stormed into politics in 1994.

Strasbourg appeal

The Supreme Court last month confirmed a four-year jail term, commuted to one year, against Berlusconi for a giant fraud at his Mediaset television empire.

The 76-year-old is expected to go into house arrest or do community service instead of going to jail.

The committee vote stems from a law parliament passed last year that bans anyone who is sentenced to more than two years in prison from holding or serving in office for six years.

The pro-Berlusconi recommendation echoed the strategy by the former prime minister's defence team that Italy's Constitutional Court should evaluate the law, saying a six-year ban violates citizens' rights.

His lawyers have also appealed to the European human rights court in Strasbourg.

Senators from Berlusconi's party and his political allies are outnumbered on the Senate committee, so the setback for Berlusconi was widely expected.

At least one more committee vote, this time on a left-wing senator's recommendation that Berlusconi is stripped of his seat, will be held in the weeks ahead before the entire Senate has the final say on whether to defy its own law and let Berlusconi keep his seat.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies