Ex-Prime Minister Convicted Berlusconi Has One Trick Left

Silvio Berlusconi paid a minor for sex and he abused his office in order to cover it up, a Milan court ruled on Monday, sentencing Italy's former prime minister to seven years in jail.
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may face a ban on public office.

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may face a ban on public office.

Foto: REMO CASILLI/ REUTERS

Friends and foes of the defendant attack each other in front of the Milan Palace of Justice, with one group using words like "crook" and "rascal," while the other berates the first as a "pack of communists." There seems to be a camera trained on each of the protesters, to ensure that it can all be broadcast live. There is an enormous media presence, even though there is in fact little to see, and the key players in the spectacle are not even inside the building.

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi  is sitting at home, in a foul mood, convinced that he will be declared guilty, because "they want me off the political stage."

The red-haired principal prosecutor, Ilda Bocassini, has gone on vacation, leaving the final appearance to her boss. It is now up to Edmondo Bruti Liberati to make it clear that it is not just "red Ilda" who opposes Berlusconi, but the entire public prosecutor's office.

Nightclub dancer Karima el-Mahroug, known as "Ruby" and dubbed "Ruby Rubacuori" (roughly: Ruby the Heartbreaker) by the media, has also chosen not to attend the hearing.

Even the three judges disappeared after 10 a.m., albeit only temporarily. They withdrew to their chambers after the attorneys for the defendant had given them a stack of documents. It contained, for the nth time, Berlusconi's account of the case they were hearing.

'Papi' Berlusconi Just Wanted to Help

Berlusconi's version sounds almost touching. He was having dinner with a dozen young women at his villa in Arcore, near Milan, listening to one of them tell the "painful story" of her young life. "I was moved," says "Papi" Berlusconi, as the girls call him. He claims that he gave poor little "Ruby" money so that she would no longer have to prostitute herself -- several tens of thousands of euros for a beauty salon. Was there sex involved? "No, never," Berlusconi claims, and "Ruby" confirms his story.

The three female judges, who return to the courtroom shortly after 5 p.m. to announce their verdict, don't see the story in such a touching light. Starting in January 2011, they interviewed almost a dozen witnesses and examined about 400 pages of logs of wiretapped telephone conversations, and they now conclude that the 76-year-old billionaire had sex with the Moroccan nightclub dancer Karima el-Mahroug in early 2010, when she was still a minor, and that he paid her for it.

The Story of Mubarak's Alleged Granddaughter

There are also versions of the second part of the story. When Ruby was arrested on theft charges on May 27, 2010, about three months after her debut in Arcore, the benevolent "Papi" came to her aid once again. This time it was for the good of Italy. Although he was on a state visit in France, he called the chief of staff of the Milan police, who was already in bed, at 11 p.m. "The prime minister told me," the chief of staff later said to investigators, "that we had a girl from North Africa in our custody who was Mubarak's granddaughter, and that a member of parliament, Ms. Minetti, would take care of her."

There were apparently several subsequent telephone conversations with members of Berlusconi's security escort, until the police chief assured them "that the minor will be delivered into the care of a member of parliament." Lawmaker Minetti was once Berlusconi's dental hygienist before becoming his lover, and before long she was a member of the regional parliament in Lombardy for Berlusconi's party. She also helped organize his infamous "Bunga Bunga" evenings.

Berlusconi said that he had stepped in because he had truly believed, at the time, that Ruby was the granddaughter of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "I asked for information, because I was worried about a situation that could have led to a diplomatic affair," he claimed.

But the court disagreed, saying that he had in fact had the girl taken out of police custody so that she would not reveal anything about his "Bunga Bunga" experiences to the Milan officers. "Ruby" had no documents, but she had already been involved in several theft cases. The judges argued that Berlusconi had abused his office for personal purposes.

Soliciting Prostitution with a Minor

The court sentenced Berlusconi to seven years in prison -- one year more than the prosecutors had asked for -- on charges of soliciting prostitution with a minor and abuse of power, and it imposed a lifetime ban on the politician holding public office.

Of course, at this point Berlusconi won't have to worry about going to prison. In Italy, convicted criminals who are over 70 are not required to serve time. Besides, Monday's judgment was handed down by a trial court and is not legally binding if an appeal is filed, which Berlusconi's chief attorney promptly announced he intended to do. This means that the case would go to two other courts before a final verdict is issued. And by the time those courts have ruled, a guilty verdict will have no direct consequences.

Berlusconi's Worst-Case Scenario

However, the media czar and three-time prime minister is likely to be more concerned about another verdict that could be issued by this fall, by a court of last resort, in a case involving tax fraud with his company, Mediaset. In that case, Berlusconi could face a mandatory prison term, as in Monday's Ruby judgment, but also a fatal "secondary penalty," provided the court of cassation upholds the lower-court verdicts: exclusion from all public offices, or a de facto ban on engaging in political activity.

That is Berlusconi's worst-case scenario. The disgrace would be painful enough, spelling the humiliating end of what he sees as a glorious career. But a forced departure from the political stage would also make him powerless against, and therefore vulnerable to legal investigations by the courts, which, as he argues, are misusing the law as a "weapon of political combat."

Berlusconi called the sentence "brutal" and promptly announced his intention to "resist," saying that he is "absolutely innocent." "I was firmly convinced that I would be acquitted, because there was absolutely no possibility of a guilty verdict based on evidence," he said.

The politician accused the three Milan judges of persecuting him. "I intend to oppose this persecution, because I am absolutely innocent, and I do not intend to give up my fight to make Italy a truly free and just country."

He is already applying pressure to the Italian government headed by Prime Minister Enrico Letta, a social democrat. The coalition will be finished, he says, unless Letta comes to his aid, because the prime minister will lack a majority without Berlusconi's party, The People of Freedom.

If Berlusconi had his way, he would like to see the government enact a small piece of legislation tailored to his situation, of which there were several during his tenure as prime minister, which would employ legal tricks to prevent his ban from politics. But because the leftists are unlikely to support this, there is also a Plan B.

A Ban on Holding Public Office

A ban on holding public office by the court of cassation would have to be confirmed by the Senate -- the second chamber of the Italian parliament, in which Berlusconi has a seat -- in a secret vote. This would provide a good opportunity for a sufficient number of leftist senators to anonymously vote "no," thereby saving Berlusconi, as the former prime minister's emissaries have intimated to the coalition partners. Otherwise Berlusconi's party would bring down the coalition government, so that new elections would be necessary.

This is where "Ruby" comes back into the picture, as does Monday's judgment, which may be of secondary importance from a legal standpoint but is highly charged politically. Although many Italians may still find Berlusconi's "Bunga Bunga" parties amusing, they are more likely to find his dealings with underage prostitutes disgusting or even criminal, and some could very well turn their backs on their hero. Berlusconi's most loyal followers, women, could be especially repelled by the Ruby affair. But if Berlusconi's election prospects decline, his threat of new elections will come to nothing. "Marvelous," Socialist Letta could then say, "then let's vote!"

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan