Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio has promised to appeal his conviction and is not expected to go to prison anytime soon — and possibly not at all.

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TURIN, Italy — Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was found guilty of tax fraud Friday and sentenced to four years in prison, a setback for the media-mogul-turned-politician who has dominated Italy’s political landscape for the past 20 years.

Berlusconi, 76, unleashed a furious retort, calling the court’s decision an “incredible, intolerable, political verdict” and describing the charges as “completely false.”

He promised to appeal his conviction and is not expected to go to prison anytime soon — and possibly not at all — because the statute of limitations on the case runs out in 2014 and he has not exhausted two levels of appeal. There are also restrictions regarding putting someone his age behind bars.

Still, the conviction is a blow for a man who only a few months ago floated the idea of a comeback as Italy’s leader after having been forced to step down last November. Berlusconi ended the speculation this week by announcing he would not run for re-election but would focus on grooming younger leaders.

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Berlusconi’s angry reaction to Friday’s verdict came in an interview on Italia 1, one of the three television stations he owns. He said there was “no connection” between his retreat from public life and the conviction because he and his lawyers had been sure of an acquittal.

Besides the prison term, the sentence handed down Friday in Milan bars Berlusconi from holding public office for five years.

The case centered on purchases by Berlusconi’s company, Mediaset, of television rights for American movies. Prosecutors argued Mediaset bought the rights through offshore entities and then falsely declared those payments to avoid paying taxes.

They said the operation allowed Berlusconi to amass sums of cash in foreign banks that was subsequently used for bribes.

The trial began six years ago but made only spasmodic progress, partly because of delaying tactics by Berlusconi’s defense team and because of an on-again, off-again immunity law for certain elected officials.

Many Italians believed Berlusconi would never be convicted because of his vast fortune, political connections and suspected efforts by his government to manipulate the judicial system.

Berlusconi is also on trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage girl whom he later allegedly tried to spring from police custody by using his political influence.

That influence has been diminished in the 11 months since economist Mario Monti took over as Italy’s prime minister and succeeded in reviving the country’s international standing, which had been brought low by Berlusconi’s personal scandals and the country’s dire economic situation.

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