ROME — Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi pledged his support for Italy's fragile coalition government to a gathering of thousands of supporters on Sunday, but he remained defiant in the face of a supreme court ruling confirming his tax fraud conviction and four-year prison sentence, declaring: "I am innocent."
The three-time ex-premier and media mogul, who also faces a ban from public office, said he would not resist criticizing the verdict against him, nor the judges who passed it, calling Italian magistrates "irresponsible."
Berlusconi looked energized and appeared to speaking off the cuff throughout the 15-minute rally in front of his Rome residence, in contrast to his nine-minute video address after last week's ruling in which he appeared shaken and on the verge of tears as he read a prepared statement.
The crowd, many of whom arrived on buses during the day, waved flags and posters urging Berlusconi, 76, not to give up and declaring support from cities and regions throughout Italy. Supporters repeatedly chanted: "Silvio."
"I don't believe that anyone can come and say to us that this is a subversive demonstration, as many have said," Berlusconi said. "And no one can come and say, as they have, that we are irresponsible. Because we have said loud and clear that the government needs to continue to approve economic measures that we have requested."
The confirmation of Berlusconi's conviction on final appeal has put more stress on Premier Enrico Letta's uneasy cross-party coalition government, which requires the support of both Berlusconi's conservative forces and the center-left to pass urgent economic measures.
Berlusconi said the last few days were "the most anguished and painful of my life," and he thanked supporters for demonstrating their affection.
"I am here. I am staying here. I won't give up," Berlusconi said.
Italy's highest court on Thursday upheld Berlusconi's four-year prison sentence, the first time that the media mogul was definitively convicted and sentenced in two decades of trials and other criminal probes.
A law to reduce prison overcrowding slashes his sentence to one year and since he is over 70, he can choose home confinement or perform social services instead of going to prison.
He also faces a public office ban, which would deprive him of his Senate seat and prevent him from running in elections for the duration of the ban. Another appeals court in Milan has been ordered to decide its length.
Barry reported from Milan.