Berlusconi begins community service

CESANO BOSCONE, Italy (AP) — Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi carried out his first four-hour community service stint Friday, observing work on an Alzheimer's ward as part of a tax fraud sentence.

The three-time former premier made no comment as he came and went from the sprawling Sacra Famiglia center for the elderly and infirm, under the gaze of dozens of journalists kept behind barricades. But he later told regional Lombard TV that many of the patients he saw were "in a very, very difficult situation, difficult to endure." One woman, he said, kissed him, while a group of men who were able to walk about turned off the TV and came over to chat.

"Of course, these were the less serious cases," Berlusconi said. While he was heckled on arrival by a lone union protester who said he should instead be at a nearby prison, a supporter waved down his car as he left the premises and he had the car stopped to thank her.

Berlusconi, 77, was ordered to perform four hours of community service a week after his four-year sentence was reduced to one by a general amnesty. He also lost his Senate seat because of the conviction, but remains an important political force as head of his Forza Italia party. The court's order permits him flexibility to campaign for the upcoming European elections, but only in the northern Lombard region and around Rome, where he can travel from Tuesday to Thursday.

Courts have warned that he could be put under house arrest if he insults the judicial system during his sentence, and the Sacra Famiglia administrators have barred any campaigning on the grounds. Berlusconi has promised surprises during his service — and told private radio on Thursday that he has been studying the latest treatments for Alzheimer's disease "to give nurses a way to be able to do more."

Still, Sacra Famiglia's director has said his integration into the routine will be gradual. He spent the first day observing work in the two-story structure that houses the Alzheimer's patients, accompanied by the director of the residential unit.

During his community service, Berlusconi is scheduled to arrive after breakfast during a period of recreation, where caregivers assist in activities that can include playing music for the patients. Lunch follows, but it is unlikely Berlusconi will help feed patients, at least at first. Then there is a period of rest, during which many patients return to their rooms.

"Silvio Berlusconi won't have an office. He won't perform activities that are fun and relaxing," Sacra Familia director Paolo Pigni told reporters last week. He added that patients in such "fragile" conditions can be "a social treasure" for those who come in contact with them.

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