Italy’s bunga-bunga trial opened on Wednesday morning in a narrow Milan courtroom under a giant mosaic of Justitia, the Roman goddess of Justice. But the atmosphere surrounding the trial of Italy’s prime minister, who is charged with paying an underage prostitute for sex and abuse of office, looked more like Carnevale than a court case involving the highest levels of government.
Outside, protesters and supporters of Silvio Berlusconi gathered with competing battle cries of “Basta Berlusconi! Go home!” and “Thank Goodness for Silvio!” Others donned Berlusconi masks or carried signs with “No Lie Zone” and photos of young women in scanty costumes. Police in riot gear patrolled the perimeter of the area and hundreds of journalists fed off the crowd’s energy. Inside, the court session lasted only eight minutes, just enough time to adjourn until May 31, but the fact that it started at all was seen as nothing short of a miracle. The day before in Rome, Berlusconi’s majority parliament voted that some of the charges against him have to be heard by a higher court, but on Wednesday in Milan, the three-judge panel–all women—seemed unaffected and officially opened the trial anyway.
Berlusconi is currently embroiled in four legal battles, but the bunga-bunga case is the only one that could be a true game-changer if he loses it. The others are for tax evasion, corruption, and bribery—all charges the 74-year-old skirt-chaser has beat in the past thanks to loopholes he created by having parliament doctor Italy’s laws. But Wednesday’s trial involves illicit sex procured from a minor, Moroccan belly dancer Karima El Mahroug—who goes by the stage-name Ruby the Heartstealer—and abuse-of-office charges for making a late-night call to a Milan police station to spring her from jail. If these charges stick, Berlusconi could finally be forced to step down.
The case is as complicated as it is twisted. Prosecutors in Milan say they have proof that Berlusconi paid Ruby for sex on 13 separate occasions beginning on Valentine's Day 2009 when she was 17 years old. Prostitution is not a crime in Italy unless it is with a minor, and Berlusconi, who does not deny knowing Ruby, says he did not have sex with her at all—payment or not. (Prosecutors in Rome opened a parallel investigation last month looking into allegations that two Italian men offered a Moroccan official cash to try to change Ruby’s date of birth on official documents to make her one year older.) Ruby also denies ever having sex with the prime minister, though she does admit to taking money from him “as a gift” and for attending his parties, which she has described to investigators in great detail.
Berlusconi is currently embroiled in four legal battles, but the bunga-bunga case is the only one that could be a true game-changer if he loses it.
According to the court document obtained by The Daily Beast, Ruby admits to being part of a lineup of as many as 43 young women who attended bunga-bunga parties at the prime minister’s Arcore residence in Milan. At those parties, Berlusconi allegedly sat in a throne-like chair while a bevy of women pole danced and stripped out of police and nurse uniforms in front of him. Berlusconi would then allegedly choose a few girls as “winners” who he would bed for the night. If convicted of paying for sex with a minor, he faces three years in prison. He has called a list of witnesses, including George Clooney to testify in his defense.
But perhaps even more troubling than the sex charges are the charges of abuse of office. It is alleged that Berlusconi admits he personally called a Milan police station on May 27, 2009 to get Ruby released to the custody of a trusted friend, Nicole Minetti, his former dental hygienist who is now a politician in Berlusconi’s political party with aspirations to be foreign minister one day. At the time, he claimed that Ruby was then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s niece and that he was trying to avoid an international incident with her arrest. But in making that call, he was admittedly using his position as prime minister to spring the young girl, and as such faces abuse-of-power charges. Italian parliament voted on Tuesday that because the alleged phone call happened when Berlusconi was acting as prime minister, a higher court or ministerial tribunal has to hear that case. Effectively, the abuse-of-office trial could run separately from the prostitution trial, giving the prime minister one more legal battle to fight.
The women’s group Arcidonna has also filed a civil suit against Berlusconi for 25 years of mistreatment of women and for “damaging the dignity of Italian women.” They’ve requested that their case be heard in tandem with the prostitution case. The court will rule on their request on May 31 when court resumes.
Meanwhile, in the streets outside, an elderly anti-Berlusconi protester hung a blue sign around her neck with the words, “Berlusconi go home.” “We have to send him home,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s time for Italians to wake up. It’s time for us to grow up.” Across the street, a Berlusconi supporter named Maria Grazia Piracci disagreed. “He won the election. If he is removed it has to by an election, not by a court.”
Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.