Berlusconi starts community service

Working with Alzheimer's patients near Milan

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on Friday started doing community service at a centre for the elderly at the Sacra Famiglia Catholic Foundation near Milan, reported leading Italian news agency Ansa.

A union protester shouting he should be in jail was taken away as the ex-premier entered the building to start helping Alzheimer's patients. Last month a Milan court ruled the media magnate could serve the remaining year of a four-year sentence for a €370-million tax fraud at his media empire by working at least four hours a week at the centre.

The alternative was for the 77-year-old media magnate to be put under house arrest, as he is too old to actually go to jail under standard Italian legal practice. The rest of the sentence is covered by amnesties.

Berlusconi has said he is happy to do community service and will try to be useful. But he has also said the punishment is "ridiculous" for a political figure of his standing and on Tuesday reiterated claims the tax-fraud sentence, which led to him being ejected from parliament and declared ineligible to stand in next month's European elections, amounted to a "coup".

There is speculation that these comments could prompt the judicial authorities to revoke Berlusconi's community service and put him under house arrest, continued ANSA’s report. Berlusconi has been warned his community service, which allows him limited freedom to continue his political activities, could be scrapped if he continues to "defame" judges. Judicial authorities in Milan have been looking into Berlusconi's comments.

Sacra Famiglia General Manager Paolo Pigni said last week that Berlusconi had "fully agreed" with his community-service plan after meeting with centre officials. He added that Berlusconi, a former cruise-ship crooner, "will not do fun or relaxing activities and he will not go into an office". The general manager said Berlusconi, who continues to lead his opposition, centre-right Forza Italia (FI) party from outside parliament, will not be allowed to exploit his social work for political purposes. "Neither Berlusconi, nor anyone else, will be able to do election campaigning at the Sacra Famiglia (centre)," Pigni told ANSA "We will be inflexible about this. No type of political activities will be allowed and neither will statements, rallies, stalls or demonstrations."

The centre added that Berlusconi will move without an police escort when he is there. "The staff that accompanies him must stop outside the facility," said Michele Restelli, director of Sacra Famiglia's residential unit. Restelli said that Berlusconi will instead be "constantly accompanied by a tutor who will be his point of reference and will follow him," ANSA concluded.

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