Berlusconi targeted in prostitution investigation

PROSECUTORS are investigating whether Premier Silvio Berlusconi had sex with an underage prostitute and then abused his power in trying to cover up the encounters with the girl.

Berlusconi faces a prostitution investigation in Milan over the teenaged nightclub dancer who attended parties at his private residence, prosecutors said yesterday.

Just a day after Italy’s constitutional court partially struck down a law that gave him blanket immunity from prosecution, the announcement adds a further headache for the premier, who is battling to shore up his struggling government and already faces fraud and corruption charges.

The magistrates are examining whether Berlusconi intervened improperly with police to secure the release of 17-year-old Karima El Mahroug, who uses the stage name “Ruby,” after she was held over theft allegations.

The investigation also covers allegations of underaged prostitution. The age of consent is 14 in Italy but exploiting or favouring prostitution of minors aged under 18 is a crime.

The person who went to the police on Berlusconi’s behalf is Nicole Minetti, the former showgirl whose offices were searched by police. Minetti, who was elected in a regional assembly in Milan for Berlusconi’s party, is also under investigation, the prosecutors said.

The prosecutors said they were investigating alleged crimes committed between February and May 2010, when the girl was 17 years old, and that they had issued summons to Berlusconi and his lawyers.

The prime minister’s lawyer Niccolo Ghedini issued a statement dismissing the investigation as “absurd and groundless” and said the allegations had already been denied by witnesses and those directly involved.

The case of “Ruby” caused an international media storm last year and instantly made the expression “bunga bunga” — a term used by the young woman to describe sex parties — part of the Italian vocabulary.

She told newspapers she was paid €7,000 after she attended a party at Berlusconi’s residence near Milan but she denied having sex with him.

Berlusconi, who has weathered a series of sex scandals involving escorts and young women since returning to power in 2008, has acknowledged knowing Ruby and making a phone call to police on her behalf.

But he says he was merely offering normal assistance to a person in need. He has denied using any improper influence or pressuring officers to let her go.

Berlusconi was placed under investigation last month but the probe was only made public yesterday.

The 74-year-old premier’s mounting legal woes have prompted speculation that his government, which just survived a no-confidence motion in parliament last month, may be close to collapse, bringing early elections to Italy.

In recent years, Berlusconi has been engulfed in scandals relating to his private life, including reports of wild parties at his mansions and alleged encounters with two other prostitutes. In 2009 his second wife, Veronica Lario, announced she was divorcing him, citing Berlusconi’s presence at the birthday party of an 18-year-old model and fondness for young women.

Berlusconi has made no apologies for his lifestyle, saying recently, “I love life, I love women!” In the past he denied having paid to have sex, though he also admitted: “I’m no saint.”

But Berlusconi’s grip on power has been greatly weakened by a split last year with his long-time ally Gianfranco Fini, which cost him his secure majority in parliament.

He has repeatedly denied the accusations against him and says he has been unfairly targeted by politically motivated magistrates.

“Faced with this tired old script made up of news leaks and improbable accusations, Italians can choose once again whether to get indignant or to yawn,” said Daniele Capezzone, spokesman for Berlusconi’s PDL party.

“If there is still someone, in and outside politics, who thinks they can defeat Berlusconi through the judiciary, they will be badly disappointed,” he said in a statement.

Timeline

July 2008 — Parliament approves a law giving Berlusconi immunity from prosecution, a victory for the conservative leader who has complained of being hounded by “biased” prosecutors.

July 2009 — Berlusconi faces accusations of cavorting with teenagers and prostitutes. He says he is “no saint”. October — Italy’s constitutional court rules that a law granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution violates the constitution in a verdict that will reopen trials against him.

March 2010 — Italy’s senate approves a law shielding Berlusconi and his ministers from trial for 18 months. November 2010 — Reports emerge of a teenaged nightclub dancer attending parties at Berlusconi’s private residence and of his office intervening with police to help her over separate accusations of theft. Berlusconi shrugs off the criticism, saying “It’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay“.

December 11 — Thousands of people take part in rallies organised by the opposition Democratic Party in Rome to protest against Berlusconi ahead of the no-confidence motion.

December 14 — Berlusconi narrowly survives a no-confidence motion by 314 votes to 311 in the lower house of parliament. He won the vote in the Senate earlier the same day.

January 13, 2011 — Italy’s constitutional court partially strikes down a law that gives the prime minister blanket immunity from prosecution Yesterday — Prosecutors say Berlusconi faces a prostitution investigation in Milan over a teenaged nightclub dancer who attended parties at his private residence.

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