Verdict due in Berlusconi sex trial

AFP , Monday 24 Jun 2013

Tycoon Berlusconi feared to pull support from Italian government if verdict from sex trial, due Monday, does not go in his favor

Italy
Silvio Berlusconi (Photo: Reuters)

An Italian court was expected to deliver its verdict Monday on whether former premier Silvio Berlusconi paid for sex with an underage prostitute known as "Ruby the Heart Stealer" and abused his official powers to help her.

Prosecutors in Milan have called for the billionaire tycoon to be banned from politics for life and serve six years in prison in a case which sparked a media frenzy amid allegations of strippers dressed as nuns and erotic party games with topless girls.

While a guilty verdict would not mean prison -- no sentence would be enforced until the appeals process has been exhausted -- it could spell trouble for Prime Minister Enrico Letta's uneasy grand coalition government.

The centre-right and left coalition relies on the support of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, and political observers warn the capricious billionaire could decide to pull the rug from under the government if he feels it is not offering him the legal protection he seeks.

"If the verdict is guilty on all counts, hard, without mitigation, no-one can bet on what Berlusconi's reaction will be," said Paola Di Caro, editorialist for the Corriere della Sera daily.

The chairman of the Senate justice committee, Nitto Parma, a Berlusconi ally, said the government "is not at risk over the trial. If he is found guilty he will behave responsibly, as promised."

The trial relates to crimes allegedly committed in 2010 when Berlusconi, 76, was prime minister, and revolves around what prosecutors say were erotic parties held at his luxury residence outside Milan.

Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex on several occasions with Moroccan-born Karima El-Mahroug, a then 17-year-old exotic dancer and busty glamour girl nicknamed "Ruby the Heart Stealer".

He is also accused of having called a police station to pressure for El-Mahroug's release from custody when she was arrested for theft.

His defence claims he believed El-Mahroug was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident, but prosecutors say it was a bid to conceal their liaison.

They have called for Berlusconi to spend five years in jail for abuse of office, and another year for paying the dancer for sex after racy "bunga bunga" evenings in a basement room of his mansion.

Both the flamboyant billionaire and El-Mahroug deny having had sex.

Neither was in court for the hearing which will bring the two-year trial to a climax.

A small group of women protested outside the court, according to Italian media reports, holding up placards slamming the three-time premier as "a recurring king who refuses to suffer the consequences of legitimate convictions and retire."

Others held signs reading "Berlusconi is ineligible, unbearable, unfit," while supporters charged that it was a "bogus trial" and said the justice system should stop persecuting Berlusconi.

The ageing party lover's fate lies in the hands of three female judges.

Prosecutor Ilda Boccassini told the court in her summing up speech last month that El-Mahroug was "part of a prostitution system set up for the personal sexual satisfaction of the defendant".

She said the dancer quickly became the premier's "favourite" and had not admitted the relationship with him only because she had received as much as 4.5 million euros ($5.8 million) from him.

El-Mahroug has proved an unreliable witness, admitting in May that she had lied to investigators about the parties -- going back on an earlier claim that strippers had "bodily stimulated" Berlusconi -- and saying she had invented the vast sum of money.

Even if Berlusconi does not pull support for the government, a guilty verdict could create tensions within the coalition, with the left already uneasy over the forced alliance.

The former cruise ship singer has long blamed his legal woes on persecution by "Communist" judges, and any perceived "victory" on the part of the left could spark an explosive reaction from loyalists.

A Milan court last month upheld his conviction for tax fraud, confirming the punishment of a year in prison and a five-year ban from public office which is frozen pending a second appeal.

Three of Berlusconi's friends -- a show-business agent, a former network anchor and a former regional assemblywoman -- are on trial on pimping charges in a separate trial linked to the case.

Prosecutors in Naples have also requested a trial against Berlusconi on allegations that he bribed a left-wing senator with three million euros to join his party and topple a past centre-left cabinet.

Even if definitively convicted, Berlusconi is unlikely ever to see the inside of a prison cell because of lenient sentencing guidelines for people over the age of 70.

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