February 15, 2023
An Italian court is set to rule Wednesday on whether billionaire ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi bribed witnesses to lie about his "bunga bunga" parties in an underage prostitution case.Milan prosecutors have called for the media magnate, 86, to be jailed for six years for allegedly paying young starlets and others for "silence and lies" about his notoriously hedonistic soirees, which he insists were elegant dinners.Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party is a member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's governing coalition, has long been dogged by legal battles, nearly all of which he has won.A guilty verdict in Milan would be a serious blow for the senator, though his age and fragile health mean he would not serve any time behind bars.He would also have the right to appeal, meaning a definitive sentence could take years.But a conviction would be embarrassing for Meloni, whose hard-right government has been in power since October.At the weekend, she was forced to reiterate her new government's support for Ukraine after yet another challenge by Berlusconi, this time when he criticized President Volodymyr Zelensky.The hearing in Milan's Aula Bunker courthouse next to the San Vittore Prison was adjourned almost immediately as judges withdrew to deliberate the verdict, which is expected late Wednesday.Berlusconi himself was not in court.But former model Marysthell Polanco, a guest at Berlusconi's parties who faces five years in prison for alleged corruption, told journalists her life had been "a nightmare" since the trial began."They cannot find guilty someone who has done nothing, where there's no evidence, neither videos nor photos, nothing but gossip," she said.Hush moneyBerlusconi is accused of bribing witnesses to lie in a previous trial in which he was charged with paying for sex in 2010 with then 17-year-old Moroccan nightclub dancer Karima el-Mahroug, better known by her stage name "Ruby the Heart Stealer".He was initially found guilty, but acquitted in 2014 after an appeals court found there was no proof he knew she was a minor.Judges believed however that a series of people had lied, including Mahroug, who was caught on tape bragging about sex with Berlusconi, and described orgiastic scenes at his parties, before later saying she made it up.Prosecutors launched an investigation that led to the Milan trial, which opened in 2017.They accuse the tycoon, who was prime minister three times between 1994 and 2011, of doling out millions of euros in hush money in the form of houses, cars and monthly payouts.'Sex slaves'Berlusconi's defense lawyers say the money was compensation for reputational damage for those involved in the case, and insist Berlusconi is being tried "for the crime of generosity".In her closing arguments in May, prosecutor Tiziana Siciliano described the former premier as "a sultan" who used to "liven up his evenings with a group of concubines, in the sense of sex slaves, who entertained him for a fee".A theatrical agent who represented several of the women said more than one had confessed to having been paid to lie about the parties, according to the Corriere della Sera daily.While some of the women involved say nothing untoward happened in Berlusconi's Arcore villa near Milan, which has a private nightclub, others have described orgies and female guests dressing up as nuns to perform erotic dances.Prosecutors have called for sentences of between one and six years for the 27 other defendants in this case, including five years for Mahroug.They have also asked the court to confiscate 10.8 million euros ($11.5 million) from Berlusconi and seize properties he made available to people accused of lying for him.Berlusconi was acquitted in two other related cases of alleged bribery, in Siena in 2021 and in Rome in 2022.Despite multiple court cases -- he claimed in 2021 to have gone through 86 trials -- he has never spent time behind bars.Berlusconi was temporarily banned from political office after a conviction for tax fraud in 2013, for which he served a community sentence.He then returned to the political front lines and was re-elected as a senator last year.© 2023 AFP
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