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Berlusconi is kicked out of Senate

Former premier Silvio Berlusconi has been expelled from the Italian Senate over his tax fraud conviction.

The vote to remove him bars the 77-year-old from office for at least six years, but does not mark the end of his political career.

Berlusconi maintained his defiance ahead of the vote, declaring a "day of mourning for democracy" before thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters outside his Roman palazzo.

Even though Berlusconi will not hold a seat in parliament, he is expected to remain influential in Italian politics. He has relaunched his Forza Italia party and analysts estimate he still commands millions of supporters.

"Today they are toasting because they can take an adversary, they say a friend, in front of the executioner's squad," Berlusconi said. "It is the day they have been waiting for for 20 years."

He pledged to continue his role as a political leader, citing other figures not in parliament, namely the founder of the Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, and Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party, tipped by many as a future premier candidate.

"Also, from outside the parliament, we can continue to fight for our liberty," he said.

Supporters were treated to a video montage of Berlusconi's greatest political hits from a career that began in 1994 when he first came into power with a political party named for a soccer chant "Go Italy." He said that even if he's no longer a senator, he will continue to be a force to reckon with.

"For us he will always be there," said Marilda Antonello as she held a banner reading "The law is not equal for everyone. Sick justice."

"He is our only leader. He is the only man who can take Italy forward," she said.

The Senate vote on whether to remove Berlusconi from the chamber stems from a 2012 law that bans anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison from holding or running for public office for six years. His lawyers claim the law is unconstitutional and have questioned the rush to expel him while legal challenges are still pending.

Italy's high court in August upheld Berlusconi's tax fraud conviction and four-year prison term stemming from his Mediaset empire's purchase of television rights to US films.

The prison term was reduced automatically to one year under a general amnesty; he will serve his time either under house arrest or through public service.

Berlusconi claims he did not receive a fair trial and that the judges were biased and out to "eliminate" him from public office. His lawyers have also said the 2012 law is unconstitutional and cannot be applied retroactively to crimes allegedly committed before it was passed.

Berlusconi made a last-ditch bid to save his seat this week, writing to opposition senators warning them that kicking a three-time premier out of public office would tarnish Italy's image abroad and weigh on their consciences, "a responsibility that in the future will shame you in front of your children, your electors and all Italians."

Berlusconi's party on Tuesday officially withdrew its support of the government of Premier Enrico Letta and is now in the opposition.

Despite the switch, Mr Letta's government comfortably survived a confidence vote and passed the annual budget. He survived because Berlusconi's one-time political heir, Angelino Alfano, split from his mentor earlier this month and formed his own new centre-right party that remains loyal to Mr Letta.

Analysts said they expected Mr Letta's government - a hybrid of his Democratic Party and Alfano's New Centre-Right - would continue in the short term.

The opposition, however, now includes two strong leaders: Berlusconi and Mr Grillo, whose populist Five Star Movement encapsulates the discontent many Italians feel with the country's byzantine politics.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi still faces other legal problems, including a seven-year prison term and lifetime ban from holding public office for his conviction of paying an underage prostitute for sex at his infamous "bunga bunga" parties and trying to cover it up. He has professed his innocence and plans to appeal.

-AP

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