updated 10/29/2010 4:01:03 PM ET 2010-10-29T20:01:03

A Milan court has convicted three doctors of performing unnecessary surgeries in what the Italian media has dubbed a "clinic of horrors," with the hospital's chief surgeon sentenced to 15 1/2 years in prison.

The court delivered its verdict late Thursday, in what was one of Italy's most notorious cases of health care gone awry. Prosecutors produced evidence that unneeded operations, including amputations, were performed on 83 patients at the Santa Rita clinic in Milan with the aim of getting large reimbursements from the state health system.

The chief surgeon, Pier Paolo Brega Massone, was sentenced to 15 1/2 years in prison. He was accused of causing pain through unnecessary surgery, including on terminally ill patients, with the sole aim of "professional and economic gain."

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Two other former surgeons received sentences of six and 10 years.

"Brega Massone is a serial criminal who committed the most terrifying of sins — betraying those who trusted in him, the patients," said Italy's professional association of doctors, which attached a lawsuit to the criminal trial seeking euro3 million ($4.2 million) for alleged damages to the profession.

The chief surgeon said he was innocent, claiming he was being used as a scapegoat. Brega Massone's lawyer vowed to appeal the conviction.

Several women had breast surgery for what were only cases of inflammation, not cancer. One patient had lung surgery instead of a thyroid operation, and another, elderly man, had part of a lung and lymph nodes removed as he recovered from pneumonia at the hospital. An 83-year-old woman with a pain in her chest had part of a lung removed and it turned out she had pneumonia.

During the trial, prosecutors played some of the intercepted phone conversations from the police investigation.

The doctors were arrested in 2008, after wiretapped conversations indicated that they were eager to do operations. In one such conversation, one of the doctor cursed when told that a 90-year-old patient had been rejected for lung surgery due to breathing difficulties.

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