Rome: Italy's Silvio Berlusconi began his community service for tax fraud Friday in a spectacular fall from grace for the flamboyant ex-premier, who will likely seek political gain from the symbolic punishment.
The billionaire tycoon, who was convicted last year and has been expelled from parliament, has been ordered to work four hours once a week for up to a year helping out in a hospice for Alzheimer's patients near Milan.
"To prison!" a trade unionist protester in a clown hat shouted as Berlusconi arrived at the clinic with his security detail in a chauffeur-driven car.
The three-time former prime minister wore a navy blue suit with a badge from his Forza Italia party.
As he left after his first morning, Berlusconi smiled and waved to the cameras but gave no comment, shrugging to journalists in an apologetic gesture.
"I have been asked not to give any comment," the Italian news agency ANSA quoted him as telling some bystanders. Italian media reported he was there to "observe" and would continue his service on Friday.
Anything but normal
The Catholic Church-run hospice in Cesano Boscone has said it will not allow Berlusconi to use his stint for political grandstanding in front of the world's media and will treat him like any other volunteer.
But Berlusconi's presence was anything but normal. Volunteers working at the hospice said relatives of patients have been requesting visits for Friday to see Berlusconi and even staff from other departments have been asking for transfers to the Alzheimer's section.
Italian media reported that medical workers had been asked not to take photos or videos inside the hospice.
The disgraced politico has dominated Italian politics for two decades and is leading a campaign for European Parliament elections despite being barred from running. His party is expected to come third with 20 per cent of the vote.
Michele Restelli, head of the hospice's care services, told the La Repubblica daily that Berlusconi's introduction would be "gradual" so that he and the elderly patients can get used to each other.
"It will be small steps so as not to make any mistakes. And then he could do all sorts of things. He could help with meals, which are tricky because sometimes you have to 'remind' the patient that they are eating," he said.
Berlusconi himself has said in interviews that he has a "big surprise" in store and has hinted that this could involve a deeper commitment to Alzheimer's sufferers.
"I think in the end I will stay a lot longer than I have to. I have a big surprise prepared. It took me just 10 days to learn the different cure methods that can be used," the 77-year-old told a radio show.
His 29-year-old girlfriend Francesca Pascale told the Il Mattino daily that he was "not afraid".
But she added: "He does not deserve this".