By Ilaria Polleschi and Silvia Aloisi
MILAN (Reuters) - A court on Tuesday ordered former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to serve a tax fraud sentence by doing community service with the elderly, in a ruling that restricts his movements but not his political activity.
The Milan court ruled Berlusconi, one of Italy's richest men, must spend at least four hours a week in an old people's home for one year.
The four-time prime minister, 77, will not be allowed to travel outside Lombardy, the region around Milan where he has his main residence, except for restricted trips to his home in Rome.
However, Berlusconi's allies said he would still be able to campaign for next month's European Parliament election and play a political role. The ruling does not mention any restrictions on holding political rallies or giving interviews.
Following a definitive tax fraud conviction last year, Berlusconi was stripped of his seat in the Italian Senate and barred from holding public office for two years.
But he remains the most influential politician on Italy's center-right as leader of the Forza Italia party.
A court statement said the trips to Rome could take place weekly, from Tuesday to Thursday, with Berlusconi ordered to be back at his Lombardy residence by 11 p.m. each Thursday. Berlusconi is expected to begin his community service duty by the end of the month.
His lawyers Franco Coppi and Niccolo Ghedini said in a statement that the ruling "appears balanced and satisfactory even with regards to the needs of political activity", and political allies said they were pleased with the decision.
"Berlusconi will take part in the electoral campaign," said his aide, Giovanni Toti. Another ally, Raffaele Fitto, said the ruling was nonetheless "a deep wound for Italian democracy".
Milan prosecutors did not press for house arrest and agreed with Berlusconi's lawyers to ask for community service.
CATHOLIC ELDERLY HOME
The court said the media tycoon will work at the Sacred Family Foundation in Cesano Boscone, a small town on the outskirts of Milan.
The Church-run center, founded in 1896 by a Catholic priest, cares for about 2,000 elderly and disabled people. A spokesperson would not say what form of community service Berlusconi would be performing in the residence.
Berlusconi has dominated Italian politics since the mid-1990s, repeatedly escaping punishment in criminal cases he said were engineered by his political foes, until last November when he was excluded from the Senate after being finally convicted of masterminding a complex system of tax fraud at his Mediaset television network.
His four-year jail sentence was commuted to one year under a law aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.
Berlusconi continues to protest his innocence and says he has been persecuted by leftist magistrates.
By doing community service, the former cruise ship crooner joins the likes of singers Boy George, who was ordered to sweep clean the streets of New York after cocaine was found at his apartment, and George Michael, who did some work at a London homeless shelter after driving under the effect of drugs.
"I am very happy with this sentence because I certainly do not understand why he should have any kind of privileged position. If this is the punishment, even if it seems very small to me, then this is correct," said Rome resident Barbara Francavilla.
Berlusconi is also fighting other high-profile court cases, including an appeal against a conviction for paying for sex with an underage prostitute known as Ruby the HeartStealer.
The center-right has suffered an internal split and lost support since Berlusconi almost won last year's national election, but Forza Italia is still Italy's second or third largest party with about 20 percent of the vote, according to varying opinion polls.
(This story was refiled to restore dropped reference to Berlusconi's exclusion from Senate in paragraph 13)
(Additional reporting by Manuela D'Alessandro; Writing by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Graff)