Bunga Bunga Verdict Divides Italy
Some called it a disgrace, others celebrated. The ex-PM may dodge jail but his legal woes are deepening
A HISTORIC court decision convicting former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi of abuse of office and paying for sex with an under-age prostitute is sending shockwaves through Italy’s political establishment.
The titillating ‘Bunga Bunga’ sex trial that has played out over the last 27 months climaxed yesterday with an unexpectedly harsh sentence – seven years in prison and a lifetime ban on holding public office. The testimony and evidence from 50 hearings revolved around two key points: whether Berlusconi paid for sex with former erotic dancer Karima el Mahroug (known as ‘Ruby the Heartstealer’) when she was a minor, and whether the then PM abused his power by helping get her released from police custody after she was detained on charges of stealing an expensive bracelet.
Berlusconi maintained he never paid for sex and called the police to have her released because he believed el Mahroug was a relative of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and he wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident.
The three-judge panel disagreed, convicting him on both charges after seven hours of deliberation. The seven-year prison sentence (one more than prosecutors had asked for) and ban on holding public office do not become final, however, until two more judicial appeals, which could take years.
The 76-year-old media magnate and political Houdini vowed to continue his fight against what he says is political persecution by left-wing
magistrates. “I will resist this persecution because I am absolutely innocent,” Berlusconi said in a statement hours after the verdict. He said the Milan court’s decision was designed to “eliminate me from the political life of this country”.
Berlusconi’s son, Pier Silvio, and his daughter, Marina, also made public statements in support of their father. A number of key centre-right party leaders said the decision had poisoned the fragile but peaceful political climate and warned the government coalition might be at risk.
The case dates back to Valentine’s Day 2010, when el Mahroug first met Berlusconi. She quickly became one of his favoured entertainers at the racy soirées held regularly at his luxurious private villa. Prosecutors claimed she had sex with Berlusconi in exchange for cash when she was still 17.
Though the legal age of consent under Italian law is 16, it is illegal to pay for prostitutes who are minors (under age 18). Dozens of ‘Bunga Bunga’ attendees and others drawn into the case gave evidence.
Yesterday, 32 of their names were read out in court by presiding judge Giulia Turri, as witnesses whom she suggested be investigated for giving false testimony. They include a Milan police officer who was on duty when Berlusconi called the station, the current Deputy Foreign Minister, a journalist, models, dancers and even a Neapolitan crooner with whom Berlusconi had recorded a CD.
MP Daniela Santanché, one of Berlusconi’s closest allies, watched in silent awe inside the courtroom as the sentence was read out. “It’s disgusting, a disgrace. It is political and has nothing to do with justice,” she said. “They put a lifestyle on trial.”
But while Berlusconi’s defenders argued he was being punished for his generous, flamboyant lifestyle of “elegant dinners” with burlesque entertainment afterwards, prosecutors painted a very different picture – of a well-oiled system of prostitution and debauchery with varying amounts of cash offered in exchange for sexual performances and favours to gratify the randy septuagenarian. Three close Berlusconi associates – a former television anchor, a publicity agent and a showgirl he helped promote to regional assemblywoman – also face pimping charges in a separate trial.
Berlusconi’s lawyer Niccolò Ghedini called the sentence “completely beyond reality” and vowed to appeal.
Public reaction appeared divided between those buoyed by what they see as the long-awaited end to the Berlusconi era and those who view the verdict as a provocative escalation of a politically-motivated battle to remove Berlusconi by hook or by crook from the political stage.
“I think the sovereignty of the nation was violated today,” said Bruno De Cristofaro, 64, a retired nurse from Pescara, watching with dismay as foreign news anchors reported from outside the fascist-era court building.
“We are in a moment in Italy that when you make a mistake, you have to pay,” said a barman across the street, throwing up his hands. “It was time.”
A small group of protesters celebrated the decision outside the courthouse, holding signs that read “A conviction to save the dignity of Italy.”
“He must go to jail,” Five Star Movement MP De Alessandro Di Battista told Sky TG24 news channel. “Until he goes to jail, this country will not be free.”
But the chances that Berlusconi will go to jail are slim, because of the country’s lenient sentencing for those over 70 years of age and the protracted legal process. Undoubtedly however, this latest conviction (Berlusconi’s third in recent months) marks a deepening of the ex-PM’s legal troubles and lays bare just how sharply divided the Italian public remains over its former leader. ·