Berlusconi faces final reckoning in sex scandal
ONE OF the most extraordinary and eagerly awaited trials in recent political history kicks off today with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi facing down squalid sex and corruption charges that could deliver a total of 15 years in prison.
Mr Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with an under-age prostitute and then lying and abusing his powers to cover it up. He insists the charges are part of a politically motivated attack by leftist magistrates.
At 9.30am today in the midst of a media scrum in the fourth criminal division of Milan's Palace of Justice, prosecuting magistrates will begin arguing their case for the tycoon leader's conviction. Despite 20,000 pages of evidence in their possession, the size of the struggle they face is neatly illustrated by the fact the 74-year-old premier will not even turn up in court to face his accusers.
But for all the grins and braggadocio, Mr Berlusconi knows he is facing the most dangerous legal challenge in a career marked by clashes with the law.
Until now, the accusations he has faced, and ultimately beaten, have involved tax and financial corruption.
This time around, the alleged crimes are straightforward, recent and strikingly tawdry. Mr Berlusconi is said to have paid for sex with the teen belly dancer Karima "Ruby" el-Mahroug on 13 occasions between February and May last year while she was still 17 -- a crime punishable with three years in jail.
He is also charged with abuse of office for telling police the teenager was the granddaughter of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, in order to have her released after she was arrested for theft in May last year. This can be punished with a 12-year prison term.
"I don't think any Western democracy has ever seen a case like this," said Antonio Padellaro, of the campaigning left-wing daily 'Il Fatto Quotidiano', which has broken many of the stories in the case.
The trial comes after an extraordinary, scandal-packed 24 months, which began with Mr Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, walking out on him with the comment that she could no longer stay with someone "who consorted with minors".
The mountains of testimonies and wiretaps to be presented by Milan's prosecutors suggest that Ms Mahroug and over 30 other young women regularly attended parties at Mr Berlusconi's mansion at Arcore, near Milan, in exchange for large sums of money and valuable gifts, including jewellery and watches. Ms Mahroug has admitted accepting €7,000 from Mr Berlusconi. But she denied that they had sex.
Many of the leaked reports have suggested that young women at the "bunga-bunga" parties competed in sexual games and erotic dancing for the chance of spending the night with Mr Berlusconi.
The seedy aspects of the investigation have dominated the headlines. But experts say the affair will have major legal-political ramifications as the executive and the judiciary seemingly battle it out over the fate of the premier.
This was underlined by the fact that yesterday afternoon Mr Berlusconi's small majority in the lower house of parliament voted to remove jurisdiction of the case away from his perceived nemeses, the Milan magistrates, to a special ministerial court.
As a result of the vote, the Constitutional Court will now rule on who has jurisdiction.
One legal expert, Carlo Guarnieri, a law professor in Bologna, said Milan's prosecutors would have their work cut out for them.
"This is a case which is difficult to sustain in court. It is very likely that all these people involved will tell very different versions." (©Independent News Service)