Berlusconi pledges to fight seven-year 'bunga' jail term
Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was given a seven-year prison sentence and banned from holding public office for life after an Italian court found him guilty of abuse of office and paying for sex with an underage prostitute.
Three judges in the court in Milan deliberated for more than seven hours before finding the 76-year-old guilty on both charges.
The convictions were a bitter blow for Berlusconi and his supporters, with close allies denouncing the court's verdict as "absurd" and a "a coup d'etat" by an allegedly left-wing judiciary.
"It is shameful, it is a political sentence that has nothing to do with justice," said Daniela Santanche, an MP from Berlusconi's conservative party and one of his most outspoken defenders.
"This sentence is a rape of the law in the name of a political struggle carried out by judicial means," said Luca d'Alessandro, another Berlusconi MP.
Berlusconi was not in court, but in a statement a few hours after the verdict, he said he had been "convinced" he would be found not guilty, claiming there was not enough evidence against him.
He said it was an "unbelievable sentence, of a harshness never before witnessed, in order to try to eliminate me from the political life of this country.
"I intend to fight this persecution because I'm absolutely innocent and I do not want in any way to give up my struggle to make Italy a free and just country."
The trial, which lasted more than two years, lifted the lid on the "bunga bunga" parties Mr Berlusconi held at his mansion outside Milan in 2010 after his wife announced she was filing for divorce.
The media tycoon insisted publicly, and in court, that the parties were nothing more than "elegant dinners" at which he crooned love songs and regaled his female guests with anecdotes.
At most, he said, they involved the young women, who were "by their nature exhibitionists", performing "burlesque contests" which he conceded he watched with "great interest".
The three female judges agreed with the prosecution that Berlusconi had developed a system of prostitution designed to "satisfy his sexual pleasure".
The judges recommended that more than 30 witnesses who gave evidence on Mr Berlusconi's behalf, including topless models and a Neapolitan musician with whom he has recorded CDs of ballads, be investigated for false testimony.
Berlusconi was accused of paying tens of thousands of euros for sex with a Moroccan-born erotic dancer, Karima El Mahroug, who called herself 'Ruby the Heart Stealer'.
Now 20, at the time she was just 17. Under Italian law it is illegal to pay for sex with a woman under the age of 18. Mr Berlusconi claimed she had told him she was 24.
In court, she denied having sex with the septuagenarian, but in an intercepted phone call she told a friend, Caterina Pasquino: "I'm at Berlusconi's, I'll dance, then I'll strip, then I'll have sex."
She later said she had been joking. The three-time prime minister and owner of AC Milan was also accused of abusing his political office by putting pressure on Milan police to release her after she was arrested on charges of stealing money and jewellery from her flatmate.
Berlusconi told the police Ruby was the grand-daughter of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president at the time, and that she must be released in order to avoid a diplomatic incident.
Ms El Mahroug told investigators she had witnessed showgirls dressing up in nurses' outfits and police uniforms, stripping to their underwear and engaging in mock lesbian shows.
The women allegedly "touched the intimate parts" of Berlusconi, who in turn touched them intimately, rewarding them with envelopes stuffed full of thousands of euro.
The women performed erotic dances in an underground "bunga bunga" room at his villa, featuring a stage, a bar and a dance floor. The villa, in Arcore outside Milan, was swiftly dubbed "Hardcore" by the Italian press.
Piero Longo, one of Berlusconi's lawyers, said they would appeal against the conviction. If that is unsuccessful, Berlusconi has recourse to a second appeal in front of Italy's Supreme Court. Together they could drag the case out for years.
Pending the appeals, the billionaire businessman will not go to jail. Berlusconi, who has long accused judges of being tools of the centre-left opposition, could withdraw backing from the four-month-old coalition government of Enrico Letta, the prime minister, in order to force new elections which he would have a fighting chance of winning.
That would enable him to bring in an immunity law or other measures which could shield him from this sentence and others that he faces, notably a four-year sentence for tax fraud in his Mediaset company which he is appealing against. (© Daily Telegraph, London)