5:00am

Wed April 6, 2011
World

Sex Trial Of Italian PM Berlusconi Set To Begin

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi went on trial Wednesday in Milan — not for accusations of tax fraud or corruption, as in his other pending court cases — but for allegedly paying for sex with a minor and abuse of office.

Neither the 74-year-old prime minister nor the young woman involved showed up in court Wednesday, and the judge ruled it an unexcused absence. The trial, dubbed Rubygate, will resume May 31.

The prosecution intends to show a sordid side of the conservative politician, while Berlusconi insists he is the victim of a leftist plot to topple him from power.

It's a cast of characters made in screenwriters' heaven: defendant Berlusconi — the hyperkinetic millionaire media-mogul-turned politician; prosecutor Ilda Boccassini — a fearless, red-headed anti-corruption and anti-mafia magistrate; and the alleged victim, Karima el-Mahroug, aka Ruby Heartstealer, the stunning, 6-foot-tall Moroccan-born pole dancer, who has become an instant celebrity.

The supporting players are some three dozen would-be starlets and call girls, and a witness list that includes government ministers, soccer players and even George Clooney.

Yet Another Trial

The prosecution claims Berlusconi hosted orgies and erotic dances — dubbed "bunga-bunga" — and had sex with the then-underage el-Mahroug in exchange for large sums of money.

But Berlusconi insists all his dinner parties are elegant and sober affairs, and denounces the charges as part of a communist conspiracy.

"I am the man most persecuted by magistrates in the history of mankind throughout the world," he says. "I have been subjected to more than 2,500 hearings."

Berlusconi has undergone about a dozen trials and has mostly been acquitted — thanks either to the statute of limitations or changes in the law.

In fact, Boccassini — the highly respected Iron Lady of the Italian judiciary — failed to win a conviction against him after false accounting was decriminalized.

This is how she described Berlusconi in her closing arguments: "He is a person who lies to the Italian people. We have been able to prove that all the statements given by Silvio Berlusconi were not true."

Ruby's Story

Boccassini and her colleagues worked hard gathering evidence in Rubygate — 20,000 pages of documents comprising hundreds of hours of testimony, phone records and wiretaps.

Berlusconi also is accused of abusing his office when he called Milan police headquarters to get el-Mahroug released after she was detained on suspicion of robbery. Berlusconi says he believed she was the granddaughter of the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and that's what he told police.

The trial star is the young Moroccan woman who shot to fame after a life of hardship. The daughter of poor Moroccan immigrants, el-Mahroug rebelled at 13 when her father reportedly tried to marry her to an older man.

Smart and ambitious, she ran away from home. At 17, she ended up in Milan after catching the eye of a talent scout at a beauty contest. And she started working as a belly dancer at nightclubs. Shortly after, el-Mahroug attended her first party at Berlusconi's villa.

According to prosecutors, she has given conflicting versions of events.

In a tearful interview on a Berlusconi-owned TV network, she denied having sex with the premier.

"He didn't put a finger on me. Why do people have to see bad things where there's nothing bad?" she told her interviewer. "After all my bosses put their hands all over me, I finally meet a man who gives me 7,000 euros and doesn't touch me."

But transcripts of her phone conversations describe a very different story. And Berlusconi's lawyers may be aware they cannot depend on el-Mahroug's testimony to clear their client.

The prime minister's supporters in Parliament passed a motion challenging the Milan magistrates' right even to press these charges against Berlusconi. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.