Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi paid the mafia millions in protection money and to further his business interests, say Italian judges.

Recently Marcello Dell'Utri, a long-time associate of Berlusconi, was convicted for his mafia connections, and Berlusconi's ties with the mob have been laid bare in a 476-page ruling by the judges of the Palermo Appeals Court.

It describes how Dell'Utri, who they write has "a natural predisposition to actively enter into contact with mafiosi", set-up a meeting between Berlusconi and senior Cosa Nostra figures Gaetano Cinà and Stefano Bontate in Milan in 1974. It was agreed at the meeting that in exchange for millions of dollars, the mafia would help to further Berlusconi's construction and broadcasting businesses in Sicilly.

The court said the meeting formed the "genesis of the relationship that linked the businessman and the mafia through Dell'Utri's mediation".

Dell'Utri, a native of Palermo and former senator, acted as Berlusconi's go-between with the mob  until 1992, when the mafia murdered two magistrates investigating mafia crime.

The judges claim that he introduced Berlusconi to Vittorio Mangano, a known mafioso, and got him a job working as a stablehand at Berlusconi's villa in Arcore, just outside Milan. It is believed that Mangano's presence acted as a deterrent to would-be kidnappers, showing that Berlusconi had mafia protection.

Dell'Utri has been sentenced to seven years in jail, but said he will appeal against the sentence at the country's Supreme Court. In Italy, verdicts are only final once a two-year appeals process is complete.

Berlusconi cannot be prosecuted for his association with the mafia, since Italian law has a statute of limitations of 20 years.

Writing in La Repubblica newspaper, leading Mafia writer Attilio Bolzoni said: "What we knew for a long time regarding the protagonists in this story, Cosa Nostra bosses on one side and a Milan businessman and three-time prime minister on the other, has now acquired an official stamp."

The ruling is the latest in a series of blows to the reputation of Berlusconi, who in June was found guilty of having sex with an underage girl in the so-called "Rubygate" scandal.

In August he was found guilty of tax fraud, and sentenced to either a year under house arrest or to community service.

He could also be expelled from the Italian parliament.

He is also under investigation for allegedly bribing Italian senator Sergio De Gregorio to change parties, helping to bring about the downfall of Romano Prodi's 2006-2008 centre-left government, which paved the way for Berlusconi to return to power.