Berlusconi sponsors legal reform after fraud verdict

ROME - Italy's billionaire former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday sponsored a petition to reform the legal system, as he struggles to contain the fallout from a landmark tax fraud verdict.

Berlusconi lost his final appeal in the case earlier this month, earning his first definitive criminal conviction out of several legal cases against him.

Under a new law, he should be expelled from parliament but his supporters say the rule is unconstitutional and in any case the Senate has to vote to eject him.

The tycoon on Saturday warned the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) against trying to expel him, warning that could end the uneasy coalition government between the PD and his People of Freedom party (PDL).

"It would be absurd if a democratic force like the PD expects another allied force to continue to work together in the government if it deprives it of its founder and leader," Berlusconi told reporters.

But he added: "I hope the government can continue".

A first meeting of the Senate committee called to examine the expulsion procedure is set for September 9, although there then has to be a full Senate vote.

The PD, the party of Prime Minister Enrico Letta, has already said it will cast its vote against Berlusconi.

A withdrawal of the PDL from the coalition in retaliation would bring down the government and could plunge Italy into political turbulence just as it tries to climb out of a devastating recession.

Berlusconi has for decades accused Italy's judiciary of being overly politicized and of pursuing a leftist-inspired vendetta against him.

He has disputed the supreme court's final verdict against him and proclaims his innocence.

He is also appealing convictions for having sex with an underage 17-year-old prostitute and for abusing his prime ministerial powers when he was in office.

"The convictions are purely political and are aimed at eliminating me so that the left can definitively seize power," Berlusconi said on Saturday, as he signed a petition for six referendums to overhaul the judiciary.

The petition is from the Italian Radicals, a small but influential party that sponsored major civil rights reforms in Italy during the 1970s and 1980s.

The referendums include one to separate the careers of investigating magistrates and judges, another to limit pre-trial incarceration and another to make magistrates liable in cases of miscarriages of justice.