Saturday 16 December 2017

Berlusconi to face string of fraud, sex and bribery trials

CASH: Moroccan dancer Karima 'Ruby' El Mahroug is to give
evidence in court
CASH: Moroccan dancer Karima 'Ruby' El Mahroug is to give evidence in court

Tom Kington in Rome

As prime minister of Italy he avoided the courtroom by flying to foreign summits while pushing for laws to make himself immune from prosecution.

But after his resignation last week amid the eurozone crisis, Silvio Berlusconi's biggest legal battles can now start in earnest. The media mogul turned politician faces a December of back-to-back hearings in trials for fraud, bribery and paying an underage girl for sex.

"Berlusconi no longer enjoys the same right to avoid trials that he did as prime minister and we are expecting a very busy month," said a source at the Milan courthouse where he faces hearings in three trials between now and Christmas, some on the same day.

In what promises to be a surreal summing-up of his years in office, Mr Berlusconi's trial for allegedly paying a Moroccan dancer, Karima "Ruby" El Mahroug, for sex when she was under 18 resumes on Wednesday, followed by three more hearings in December that promise a parade of showgirls who will give evidence about the 'bunga-bunga' parties at Mr Berlusconi's Milan mansion.

Now pregnant by her partner, a Genoa nightclub owner, Ms El Mahroug is expected in court as Mr Berlusconi's lawyers try to convince an all-female panel of three judges that he had showered her with cash to keep her from straying into prostitution.

Prosecutors are likely to ask how Mr Berlusconi could claim Ruby was on the breadline when, after she was arrested on suspicion of theft, he also told Milan police he believed she was a relative of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Mr Berlusconi is also charged with pushing police to free her.

Mr Berlusconi may yet be thrown a lifeline by Italy's constitutional court, which will rule in February on whether the trial should shift to a special tribunal for ministers. In the meantime, he can no longer use the ruling that allows a prime minister with commitments to ask for his trial to be postponed. "Now, if he doesn't show up, and we don't expect to see much of him, the trial simply proceeds without him," said the court source.

Mr Berlusconi kept busy last week rallying his troops in parliament while moving his possessions out of Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister's office and residence.

Tomorrow, a trial starts in which he is not a defendant but could weigh equally on his reputation. Nicole Minetti, the TV dancer Mr Berlusconi appointed a regional councillor, is accused of procuring prostitutes for Mr Berlusconi, alongside TV newsreader Emilio Fede and the showbusiness agent Lele Mora, who is already in jail for fraudulent bankruptcy.

"This will be a really long trial," warned Mr Fede's lawyer, Nadia Alecci, who confirmed that defence lawyers are asking for George Clooney to be among the 200 witnesses called.

Ms El Mahroug said she saw Clooney at a dinner with Mr Berlusconi, and since lawyers will be seeking to discredit her they plan to bring it up. "We know the Clooney story is not true, and we'd like to hear him say so," said Ms Alecci.

Apart from a cast of characters close to Mr Berlusconi, including the guitarist with whom he co-writes love songs and a former masseur from his Milan football team whom he appointed a local politician, witnesses will include two women who claim to have fled in horror from one of Mr Berlusconi's parties when female guests started to stroke a sculpted penis suggestively at the dinner table.

The pimping trial will clash tomorrow with a hearing in Mr Berlusconi's trial for fraud at his Mediaset TV company. A second indictment against Mr Berlusconi for alleged fraud at the same company, meanwhile, has been dropped, although his son, Pier Silvio, will still stand trial.

That leaves Mr Berlusconi's trial for allegedly paying British lawyer David Mills $600,000 in 1997 for lying in court on his behalf. Mills's conviction at trial and on appeal for receiving the bribe was timed out by the statute of limitations before Italy's highest appeals court could rule on it and prosecutors have packed in five hearings before Christmas, starting on November 28, before Mr Berlusconi's case is timed out in the spring.

"Mills is the biggest problem for Berlusconi because a conviction could happen shortly," said James Walston, professor of politics at the American University of Rome. But the court source said a final, definitive conviction was unlikely. "A conviction would need to be upheld through two appeals, and I do not see that happening in time," he said.

Finally, a judge will decide next month if Mr Berlusconi should face trial for leaking to one of his publications the transcript of a police wiretap. "This series of trials is going to be damaging for Berlusconi, which is why he is being aggressive right now," said Mr Walston. "He either fights or retires to his villa in Antigua."

Sunday Independent

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