Berlusconi Found Guilty in Bunga-Bunga Trial

After 20 months of colorful testimony, the former Italian prime minister is convicted in a prostitution case.

06.24.13 6:01 PM ET

So the money was for sex after all ...

Geriatric playboy and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was found guilty Monday of paying underage Moroccan belly dancer Karima El Mahroug for sex after a lengthy, colorful trial that often seemed more like burlesque show than proceedings in the court of law.

He was also convicted of abusing his office of prime minister after calling a Milanese police station to spring her on unrelated theft charges. He claimed that he thought El Mahroug, whose stage name is Ruby the Heart Stealer, was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and said he had called the cops to sidestep an international incident.

He was sentenced to seven years in prison, even though the prosecutors only asked for six. He has also been banned from holding public office for the rest of his life. His lawyer immediately announced that he would appeal both convictions.

The aging media magnate and political powerhouse will not be going to jail, though, because nonviolent convicts do not have to serve prison sentences during the appellate process. He is not currently a government minister, but he is an active parliamentarian as the head of the strongest coalition in Italy’s current center-left government, led by Enrico Letta, which could now face instability if he throws a political tantrum and pulls his support. He has long blamed the center-left political establishment for controlling the judiciary, who, he says, have persecuted him for 20 years.

The prostitution conviction stems from an alleged sex-for-hire tête-à-tête between Berlusconi and El Mahroug when she was 17 and he 74. Prostitution is not illegal in Italy, and the age of consent is 14, but prostitution with a minor is a criminal offense. Both Berlusconi and El Mahroug deny bedding down and instead claim that he paid the young Moroccan €60,000—about $80,000—to help her buy a hair-removal machine for a beauty parlor she wanted to open.

The all-female three-judge panel apparently found that explanation unconvincing and ruled that the money was paid for sexual favors on 13 known occasions, beginning on Valentine’s Day 2010.

According to witnesses and evidence presented during the trial, the encounters often occurred after Berlusconi’s orgiastic bunga-bunga parties at his villa in Milan.

Among the myriad cinematic witnesses during the 20-month trial were showgirls who testified that they often dressed as pole-dancing nuns, nurses, and even Barack Obama before stripping down to G-strings. Witnesses claimed that many of the young ladies wrapped up their stage acts by fondling Berlusconi and his invited guests, who, in turn, are said to have had free rein over the girls.

Witnesses testified that El Mahroug spoke of the relationship with Berlusconi as one of financial necessity, and she was even caught on a wiretap admitting to what to the court certainly sounded like more than a platonic relationship with her sugar daddy.

El Mahroug testified in court that the bunga bunga parties were a hotbed of sexual energy, but she insisted that she never slept with the prime minister at his villa or anywhere else. More than 30 young women, including El Mahroug, were known to have been part of the bunga bunga set, based on witness accounts, but she was the youngest.

Prosecutors argued that El Mahroug and the others were part of a stable of women who were part of a prostitution pool “set up for the personal sexual satisfaction” of the former prime minister.

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During her own court testimony in May, El Mahroug admitted to receiving cash from Il Cavaliere, as Berlusconi is known in Italy, but failed to recall many details of the evenings, insisting that he was like an uncle helping her out in a time of need.

Berlusconi anticipated the conviction, priming his faithful followers well in advance that he expected to be found guilty, blaming biased judges. After the judges’ ruling, Berlusconi’s head lawyer, Niccolò Ghedini, told reporters outside the Milan courtroom that the conviction was “beyond reality” and “completely illogical.”

Berlusconi’s loyal supporters rallied outside the Milan courthouse to support their fallen leader.

“It is shameful. It is a political sentence that has nothing to do with justice,” said Daniela Santanchè, a politician and staunch party faithful.

Last month Berlusconi lost an appeal against a conviction for tax fraud that carries a four-year sentence. That case will now go to Italy’s high court sometime later this year. Still, there is little chance Berlusconi will ever see the inside of a jail cell. By the time his appeals have been exhausted, he will have cleared the age hurdle that protects older Italians from serving prison sentences for nonviolent crimes.