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Rally for Berlusconi draws divided crowd

The former premier's backers protested his fraud conviction. Critics shouted "Jail!"

ROME - Thousands of supporters of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi rallied in a northern Italian city Saturday to protest the media mogul's recent conviction by a Milan appeals court for tax fraud, cheering their hero as police in riot gear separated them from jeering opponents.

The backers turned out for the "Everyone for Silvio" rally by his Freedom People party in a square outside the cathedral in Brescia, a small industrial city that is a bastion of the conservative leader's political support. As some arrived, waving pro-Berlusconi banners, some detractors shouted "jail, jail." Helmeted police holding plastic body shields moved in between the noisy camps to prevent any physical violence.

The appellate court in its ruling Wednesday also upheld a four-year prison term and a five-year ban from political office.

Berlusconi, who serves in Parliament, will appeal. The statute of limitations could run out on the case before the final appeal runs its course, which would essentially make the conviction fall by the wayside.

"There are politicized magistrates blinded by prejudice and hatred toward me," Berlusconi said. "I want to send them a clear message from here: You can do anything to me, but there is one thing you cannot do - be the leader of the Freedom People, as long as millions of Italians want that."

The billionaire businessman, who jumped into politics two decades ago by forming his own center-right party, has long blamed his many criminal cases on prosecutors he contends side with the left. Detractors say his former governments made laws tailor-made to help his judicial woes, including one that said premiers can cite official duties as a "legitimate impediment" to put off trial hearings, delaying the end of trials and making it more likely statute of limitations could kick in.

The rally had been originally set as a campaign event for Berlusconi's party candidate in Brescia's upcoming mayoral election. But the 76-year-old former cruise ship entertainer instead rattled off a litany of his woes with justice, and pledged that he would use his center-right forces' role as major coalition partner in center-left Premier Enrico Letta's new government to battle for speedy reform of Italy's justice system, which he derided as a "infernal meat-grinder."

"Unfortunately, the magistrates never pay for their errors," Berlusconi said.

The show of support comes as another crucial verdict by a criminal court nears. Berlusconi is on trial in Milan on charges he paid an underage Moroccan teen for sex.