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11.24.11

Out of Office, Berlusconi Faces 'Bunga Bunga' Prostitution Trial

Did he pay a minor for sex? Abuse his office to help her? Commit tax fraud? Pay for perjury? Without the immunity of his office, the former prime minister will appear in court.

Italy’s erstwhile prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is no stranger to scandal, but now the 75 year old has more to worry about than bad press. His sensational resignation on November 13 not only stripped him of his job, it also exposed him to the law.

As prime minister, Berlusconi could run down the clock on various statutes of limitations by invoking his state duties as legitimate impediments to attending trials. Now his immunity is gone and Berlusconi is dealing first-hand with myriad criminal accusations against him.

The former prime minister is currently standing trial in three separate criminal cases. On Wednesday, the most serious trial, in which he is charged with paying a minor for sex and abuse of office, reconvened in Milan, though Berlusconi won’t attend until he is called as a witness at a later date. Dubbed “Rubygate,” the case centers on Berlusconi’s relationship with Karima El Mahroug, an 18-year-old Moroccan exotic dancer whose stage name is Ruby the Heartbreaker. Prosecutors charge that Berlusconi paid El Mahroug for sex on 13 separate occasions, beginning in 2009 when she was only 16 years old. Berlusconi admits that he paid El Mahroug €45,000, but he says it was for hair-removal equipment she needed to open a beauty salon, not for sexual favors. The underage prostitution charge carries a three-year prison term.

In the same case, Berlusconi also faces an additional 12-year sentence for abuse of office for allegedly helping Ruby out of a tight spot. Late one night in 2010, he received a call from a mutual friend who said Ruby had been arrested for suspected theft. He called the cops and asked them to release her into the custody of Nicole Minetti, his loyal former dental hygienist turned local politician. Berlusconi told the police that Ruby was the niece of then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and insists he was only trying to save Mubarak from a potentially embarrassing situation. Early next year, Italy’s high court will rule whether or not to separate the abuse-of-office charge from the underage prosecution case since the crime was committed while he was prime minister and should be heard by a special tribunal. If that happens, he’ll have one more court case calendar to juggle. The next Rubygate hearing is December 2.

As if it weren’t squalid enough on its own, Rubygate has spawned several sub-cases. On Monday, a pimping case against three of Berlusconi’s closest associates, including Minetti, 25, opened in Milan. She is on trial with Emilio Fede, 55, a television celebrity from Berlusconi’s network, and Lele Mora, 80, a talent agent who was recently convicted of fraudulent bankruptcy. Prostitution in Italy is not illegal per se, but procuring prostitutes is, and the three are charged with supplying 29 women to provide sex at Berlusconi’s “bunga-bunga’” parties. The three deny the charges and say the women weren’t paid for sex. The women named in the case have also filed a counter-civil claim in which their lawyers say they are escorts, not prostitutes. They are asking for damages and a public apology to restore their tarnished reputations. The pimping trial reconvenes on January 20, when all the glamorous escorts are expected to be in court.  The list of witnesses in that case tops 200 and includes many major figures who have attended Berlusconi’s fetes including George Clooney who is expected to testify that Berlusconi gave him a tour of the bedrooms of his house, but that he left the party before the fun started.

Another Berlusconi associate, Giampaolo Tarantini, is also facing trial for dealings with the former prime minister.  He stands accused of blackmailing Berlusconi to keep quiet about the girls. He is also accused of supplying prostitutes for Berlusconi’s parties but insists that he footed the bill for the girls himself and that Berlusconi was unaware the girls were for hire rather than just plain fun.. Berlusconi admits to paying Tarantini, but says he was only helping a friend in need. “I helped a family with children who found themselves and continue to find themselves in very serious financial difficulty,” Berlusconi told investigators. “I didn’t do anything illegal: I limited myself to helping a desperate man without asking for anything in exchange.”

“Prosecutors charge that Berlusconi paid El Mahroug for sex on 13 separate occasions, beginning in 2009 when she was only 16 years old.”

It’s not just sex trials that will take up Berlusconi’s free time. He is also on trial in two white-collar criminal trials, including charges of tax fraud, related to his massive media empire. And in the final case, he is being tried for bribery for allegedly paying his British lawyer David Mills around half a million euros to lie on the stand. These cases, however, face a number of legal loopholes that may render them ineffective.

When he’s not in court, Berlusconi is still ever-present in Italian parliament. He has so far supported his successor Mario Monti but he has also hinted that he will pull his support if Monti’s austerity measures are excessive. In the meantime, he has also released a CD of Neapolitan love ballads he wrote for his long-time musical partner Mariano Acipella.  The 11-track CD is titled “Il Vero Amore” or “True Love” hit music stores on Tuesday.