Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi [Reuters]

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to four years in jail by a court in Milan for tax fraud.

The sentence came at the end of a six-year trial on charges of fiscal irregularities made against Berlusconi's mass media company Mediaset.

Berlusconi, 76, has also been banned from public office and fined €10m (£8m), together with movie intermediary Frank Agarma - who was also convicted.

The conviction and ban do not take effect until after the end of all of stages of the trial. If,Berlusconi appeals, thus delaying proceedings, he could potentially still run the parliamentary elections in 2013 - even though he officially ruled himself out from running earlier this week.

The prosecution claimed that from the 1990s to 2003, Mediaset bought rights for TV shows from American companies, such as Paramount, at artificially inflated prices for a total of €470m.

Berlusconi kept the surplus in slush funds in Swiss banks. The unlawful transactions passed through offshore bank accounts held by Agarma, an Egyptian national.

US companies were said to be unaware of what Berlusconi was doing.

Statute of limitations

Agarma was sentenced to three years in jail and two of the 11 Mediaset executives on trial with Berlusconi were convicted.

Daniele Lorenzano was sentenced to three years and eight months and Gabriella Galetto to 18 months.

All other defendants, including Berlusconi's right-hand-man Fedele Confalonieri, were acquitted or cleared because the statute of limitations had expired.

Prosecutor Fabio De Pasquale had urged a sentence of three years and eight months for Berlusconi, saying the former premier had left his "fingerprints" on the fraudulent system.

"It is the last evidence of the existing judicial [bias] against Berlusconi. The sentence is unexpected, nonsensical and excessive," said the secretary of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, Angelino Alafano.

The sentence could be still be quashed by the Italian constitutional court as it has still to decide on a related issue.

If the constitutional court decides that the Milan court should have postponed a hearing in 2010 at the request of Berlusconi, the whole fraud trial will have to be heard again.

Berlusconi is also on trial in Milan for underage prostitution and exaction (bribery) - in the so-called bunga bunga trial.