Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi ordered to stand trial on underage prostitution charge


February 15, 2011

 

 

By Jeffrey Donovan and Sonia Sirletti

(Updates with quotes in fourth, sixth and eighth paragraphs.)

Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was ordered to stand trial on charges of abuse of power and paying a minor for sex, fueling calls for his resignation amid a deepening clash with the nation’s judiciary.

Judge Cristina Di Censo today approved a request by Milan prosecutors for Berlusconi to be tried and fixed an April 6 start for the proceedings, according to a statement read to reporters. Berlusconi’s trial will be heard by a panel of three women judges.

The premier, who has denied any wrongdoing, has called the charges “disgusting” and “groundless.” A conviction on both counts could carry a maximum sentence of 15 years, though it’s unlikely Berlusconi, 74, would be jailed, given his age and the probability he could run out the statute of limitations during the appeals process.

“We respect the independence of the judges,” said Alessandro Maran, deputy whip for the Democratic Party, the largest opposition party. “But he should step down immediately as prime minister and spare us from being the laughing stock of the world.”

Judicial Conspiracy

Berlusconi has regularly accused the prosecutors of trying to destroy him since he entered politics in 1994. By his count, he’s been targeted in 105 probes and trials, faced 2,500 court hearings and spent more than 300 million euros ($409 million) in consultant and legal fees. He describes himself as history’s “most persecuted man.” Prosecutors have never been able to make any conviction stick and he’s won two elections while facing criminal charges.

“This was something we expected in the framework of a politicized process that is seeking to remove Berlusconi from power,” Fabrizio Cichitto, head of Berlusconi’s People of Liberty Party in the Chamber of Deputies, said in Rome. Berlusconi canceled plans to speak at an unrelated press conference today in Sicily.

Berlusconi has so far refused to cooperate with the investigation and has questioned the legitimacy of the Milan court to hear the case. Under Italian law, he won’t have to testify or attend the trial.

“Berlusconi is a defendant and not a witness in this case, said Giuseppe Vaciago, with Vaciago law firm in Milan. “In Italy the defendant is not obliged to be in court. You can have the trial without the defendant.”

Ruby Heart-Stealer

The trial will examine his relationship with Karima El Mahroug, a Moroccan nightclub performer nicknamed Ruby Heart Stealer who attended at least one party at his Milan mansion in February 2010 when she was 17. The abuse-of-power charge stems from his role in helping secure her release from police custody in Milan after her detention in May on unrelated theft charges.

The premier, who owns Italy’s biggest private broadcaster, referred to El Mahroug as a relative of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak when he phoned the police on her behalf, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told parliament in November. She is not related to Mubarak, and has denied having sexual relations with the Italian leader or being a prostitute.

Berlusconi, who says he’s never paid for sex, has said he didn’t know that El Mahroug was a minor and denied pressuring police to release her. He’d only phoned to help a young woman in a “tragic situation,” he said.

No-Confidence Vote

El Mahroug was released by police into the custody of Nicole Minetti, 25, a former showgirl and dental hygienist who was elected a regional representative for Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party in March 2010. Prosecutors allege that Minetti, also targeted in the probe, helped secure young women for Berlusconi’s parties.

The premier’s conservative government survived a no- confidence motion in parliament by three votes on Dec. 14, as Italian newspapers began to publish details of the Ruby story. Hundreds of thousands of women demonstrated in more than 200 Italian cities and towns on Feb. 13 to defend the dignity of women and call on Berlusconi to quit. The case is also straining Berlusconi’s support from Catholic voters, and the director of Avvenire, the newspaper of Italy’s national Bishops conference, endorsed the women’s protest in a Feb. 12 editorial.

“The Italian political situation is completely frozen now,” said Rocco Buttiglione, a member of parliament for the opposition Union of Centrist Party. “Everything has become more and partisan, making dialog more difficult.”

Opinion Poll

In an opinion poll prepared by Ipsos released on Feb. 8 on the television program Ballaro, 61 percent of respondents said that Berlusconi should resign, with 33 percent saying he should remain in office. The same poll showed that Berlusconi’s coalition maintained about a three percentage point lead over the biggest opposition bloc, a similar margin to that of an IPR poll released Feb. 2.

The prosecutors announced their probe of Berlusconi on Jan. 14, a day after Italy’s Constitutional Court overturned parts of a law granting him virtual immunity from prosecution while in office. The ruling opened the door to the resumption of pending corruption trials against Berlusconi, and prosecutors on Feb. 8 received approval to restart on March 11 a bribery trial against the premier. In that case, Berlusconi is accused of paying a U.K. lawyer $600,000 to lie on his behalf in another trial. Berlusconi has denied any wrongdoing in that case.

Appeal Process

Under Italian law, the prostitution charge carries a maximum sentence of three years and Berlusconi faces a penalty of 12 years if convicted of abuse of power. Conviction on the underage prostitution charge won’t require prosecutors to prove the two engaged in intercourse. If convicted, Berlusconi would be able to appeal twice in a process that can typically drag on for years before a binding verdict is delivered.

The lower house of parliament on Feb. 3 voted to deny a request by prosecutors to search the Milan office of Giuseppe Spinelli, one of Berlusconi’s accountants. Spinelli is suspected of making payments on behalf of the premier to women who attended parties at his residences.

In their search request, prosecutors said that Berlusconi had provided some young women who frequented his Milan mansion with cash and gifts including use of apartments in the city. Friends of the premier who are also targeted in the probe “identified, selected and accompanied a relevant number of young women, who prostituted themselves with Silvio Berlusconi in his residence and were paid money by him,” even though the funds were distributed by intermediaries, Chief Milan Prosecutor Edmondo Bruti Liberti wrote in the document.

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