MILAN — Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister, was sentenced to seven years in prison and banned from politics for life Monday for paying an underage prostitute for sex during infamous “bunga bunga” parties and forcing public officials to cover it up.
It was the most damaging setback yet for the 76-year-old Berlusconi, who has been tried numerous times for his business dealings but never for his personal conduct.
He vowed that his days in politics are not over. He has two levels of appeal, and his supporters quickly rallied around him.
The charges against the billionaire media mogul resulted from what became widely known in Italy as “bunga bunga” parties hosted in 2010 by Berlusconi, then the prime minister, at his villa near Milan, where he wined and dined beautiful young women.
Berlusconi’s defense described the dinner parties as elegant soirees, but prosecutors said they were sex-fueled gatherings that women were paid to attend.
The woman at the center of the scandal, Karima el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby, has described aspiring showgirls stripping for the Italian leader at the time.
Both Berlusconi and Ms. el-Mahroug denied ever having sex, and Ms. el-Mahroug says she never worked as a prostitute.
After the verdict, Berlusconi said on Facebook that he believed he would be acquitted “because in the facts there is really no possibility to convict me.” He called the sentence “incredible, of a violence never seen or heard before, to try to eliminate me from the political life of this country.”
The Milan criminal court’s ruling went further than the original charges and openly questioned whether many of the young women who testified in Berlusconi’s defense had lied on the stand to protect him.
The panel of three judges, all women, said Berlusconi went beyond using his influence to cover up his relationship with Ms. el-Mahroug as charged. She was 17 at the time.
The judges said he stepped in to win her release from police custody when she was accused of theft. As a result, one year was added to the six requested by prosecutors.
The court also said it was turning over to prosecutors files of testimony from more than 30 women who attended the parties to investigate if they had lied under oath when they denied a sexual character to the gatherings.
Berlusconi was not in court for the sentencing. His lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, said he would appeal a decision he called “largely expected” and “out of reality.”