An Italian court on Monday sentenced Silvio Berlusconi to seven years in jail and banned the former premier from public office after convicting him of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power to hide the liaison.
Berlusconi attacked "an incredible sentence, of a violence never seen or heard before, handed down to try and eliminate me from political life," while his lawyers said they would appeal.
The sentence went beyond the request of prosecutors, who had called for the billionaire, 76, to serve six years, and could spark serious tensions within Italy's uneasy grand coalition government.
"I was truly convinced I would be absolved because there was absolutely no possibility of being found guilty based on the evidence," Berlusconi said in a note, adding: "I am utterly innocent."
The sentence was "completely illogical," his lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said, amid a clamour from supporters accusing the Milan judges of persecuting the three-time former prime minister.
The verdict brings to a climax a two-year trial which kicked off a media frenzy -- amid allegations of strippers dressed as nuns and erotic party games with topless girls -- and sparked cheers and applause from anti-Berlusconi protesters outside the court.
The media magnate's cronies, many of whom took to Twitter in disgust, described the verdict as "utterly shameful" and "a political verdict, a coup d'etat."
Berlusconi's spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti said it confirmed "the bid to eliminate Berlusconi from the political scene... but the attempt, which has gone beyond the limits of credibility, will fail."
Berlusconi's daughter, Marina, chairperson of his holding company Fininvest, said it was "an absurd spectacle which had nothing to do with justice" and the guilty verdict "was written from the start."
James Walston, politics professor at the American University of Rome, said the conviction would "accentuate already existing divisions within the cabinet."
"Berlusconi's supporters are defending him even more passionately than before. They are spitting fire and blood," he said.
Interior Minister Angelo Alfano, the secretary of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party, said the verdict was "worse than the worst case scenario" and urged him to "soldier on" -- a possible reference to his support for the government.
The coalition relies on the support of the PDL, and observers had warned the capricious billionaire could pull the rug out from under the government if he felt it was not offering him legal protection.
The sentence will be suspended until all appeals have been exhausted, a process likely to take years.
Berlusconi's age also means he is unlikely to ever see the inside of a prison cell because of lenient sentencing guidelines in Italy for people over the age of 70.