STRASBOURG, France — Lawyers for Silvio Berlusconi and the Italian government sparred Wednesday in Europe’s human rights court in an unusual, high-profile case that could help the 81-year-old tycoon’s attempted political comeback.

Berlusconi, the three-time Italian premier, says Italy’s government violated his rights by barring him from public office over a tax fraud conviction. He is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights — though he’s determined to weigh in on Italy’s upcoming electoral campaign regardless of what the court decides.

“I hope the court quickly takes up my appeal,” Berlusconi told La Repubblica on Wednesday, when the Strasbourg, France-based court held its first hearing in the case. “But my role in the next campaign is clear: Independent of my ability to run, I will be campaigning for the center-right to lead the country.”

Berlusconi, who has emerged from the political shadows in the run-up to the 2018 elections, has asked Italy’s president to delay holding general elections until late spring in hopes that the court will make a decision in time to allow him to run on his Forza Italia ticket.

A court decision isn’t expected for months.

His lawyer Edward Fitzgerald argued Wednesday that Italy violated Berlusconi’s human rights in multiple ways, notably by means of a 2012 law preventing anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison from holding or running for public office for at least six years.

Berlusconi in 2013 was stripped of his Senate seat and barred from holding public office following a tax fraud conviction.

He challenged the ban first in Italy and then at the European court, arguing among other things that being stripped from office amounted to retroactive punishment, since the tax fraud case concerned crimes purportedly committed prior to 2012.

Fitzgerald said the ban was vague, politically driven and offered Berlusconi no legal recourse. He said it was designed by Berlusconi’s rivals in the Senate to target the former premier.

“That was politics of the Roman amphitheater, in which the fate of the gladiator is determined by how many thumbs go up and how many thumbs go down,” Fitzgerald told the court.

A lawyer for Italy’s government, Maria Giuliana Civinini, insisted that the eligibility rules “were not introduced to persecute, and there was nothing personal about it.”

He argued that contrary to claims by Berlusconi’s team, Italian government has not violated any article of the European Convention on Human Rights

In the years that he has been out of office, Berlusconi has continued to run his Forza Italia party and wield political weight in the center-right, despite a long recovery from heart surgery.

The center-right coalition, which includes the anti-immigrant Northern League and a smaller like-minded party, currently leads the polls with about 33 percent of the vote, with the ruling Democratic Party and its center-left allies taking about 30 percent. The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement has the most support of any single party, with about 28 percent, but has ruled out forming coalitions, which will likely hurt its aspirations of trying to win national office for the first time.


Winfield reported from Rome. Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.