SILVIO Berlusconi is being investigated for allegedly having sex with an underage prostitute and then trying to cover up the encounters by abusing his powers as prime minister.
Italian prosecutors are looking into Mr Berlusconi's relationship with a teenage nightclub dancer whose stage name is 'Ruby the Heart Stealer'. She attended at least one dinner at his villa outside Milan, where she said she witnessed orgies known as "bunga-bunga" parties.
The age of consent in Italy is 14 but paying for sex with a person aged under 18 is a crime.
Mr Berlusconi was accused by his opponents of a gross abuse of office when it emerged that in May last year he telephoned a police station in Milan, where the runaway, then aged 17, was being questioned on theft allegations, and ordered officers to release her.
He reportedly told them that the young woman, whose real name is Karima El Mahroug, was the granddaughter of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, to which one magistrate responded: "If she's Mubarak's granddaughter then I'm Queen Nefertiti of the Nile."
Prosecutors in Milan want to ascertain whether Mr Berlusconi's motivation in having the Moroccan-born belly dancer released was to cover up the fact that he had allegedly paid her for sex during encounters at his villa in Arcore, near Milan, between February and May last year. They issued Mr Berlusconi and his lawyers with a summons to appear in court at the end of next week on charges of engaging in prostitution with a minor and abuse of office.
They also ordered police in Milan to search the offices of several people implicated in the case, including a veteran news presenter on one of Mr Berlusconi's television channels and a prominent showbusiness agent.
Nicole Minetti (25) an Anglo-Italian former model and showgirl who was unexpectedly propelled into politics by Mr Berlusconi's party last year, is also being investigated for allegedly procuring prostitutes for the prime minister.
Mr Berlusconi allegedly sent her to collect Miss El Mahroug when police released her from custody on the night of May 27.
As the "Rubygate" scandal widened, it emerged that police in Genoa had seized digital photographs and video of parties at Mr Berlusconi's summer residence in Sardinia when they raided a youth shelter in which Miss El Mahroug was living in October.
Mr Berlusconi's lawyers said yesterday that the accusations were "absurd and groundless" and a politically motivated attempt to discredit the government. They also denied that Mr Berlusconi had ever slept with the teenager.
"There were never any sexual relations but only an acquaintance without implications of an intimate nature," they said.
Miss El Mahroug, who turned 18 in November, has denied that she had sex with the 74-year-old prime minister, although she says he gave her jewellry and €7,000 in cash at the end of the party.
The announcement of the investigation came a day after Italy's constitutional court struck down parts of an immunity law that had frozen three trials in which Mr Berlusconi is accused of corruption and tax fraud. The court's ruling cleared the way for the cases to resume. (© Daily Telegraph, London)