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Sunday 22 April 2012

Silvio shows he still loves playing party politics

Berlusconi's visit to the court where he is on trial for paying for sex was carefully planned, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

GENIAL ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi turned up on Friday at the Milan courthouse where he's being tried on charges of abuse of office and paying for sex with an underage erotic dancer.

Since defendants are not required to attend, and this billionaire is a busy mogul whose interests include hands-on involvement in media and the football club AC Milan, it was good of him to spare the time.

In Italy you can have legal sex over the age of 14, but if money changes hands the recipient has to be 18. The allegation is that when she was 17 he paid Karima el-Mahroug, aka Ruby the Heart Stealer, for sex, and that when the police arrested her on suspicion of stealing money and jewellery from a flatmate, Berlusconi put pressure on them to release her by claiming that -- as a close relative of Hosni Mubarak, then president of Egypt -- she could cause a diplomatic crisis.

One senior police officer, Piero Ostuni, testified that he had a phone call from Berlusconi. "He told me that there was a girl at police headquarters who, he had been informed, was the granddaughter of Mubarak, and that the parliamentarian Nicole Minetti would come and take care of the situation with regard to care."

(Minetti, once a dancer on a show on one of Berlusconi's television channels, became a dental hygienist in November 2009. The following month she ministered to the prime minister when he had teeth broken in an attack with marble statue. In February 2010 she was selected as a candidate for his People of Freedom Party and the following month won a seat on Lombardy's regional council. She helps make his 'bunga bunga' parties go with a swing. It is she who is alleged to have introduced Ruby into the circle; she has been charged with providing Berlusconi with prostitutes.)

Knowing Ruby to be Moroccan, Ostuni didn't believe she was related to Mubarak. Policewoman Giorgia Iafrate talked to Ruby, who said she wasn't related to Mubarak but sometimes said she was. After more calls from Berlusconi, Ruby was released into Minetti's care. Ruby has insisted that she never slept with Berlusconi, but that he gave her €7,000 after a dinner at his villa.

Dealing with criminal allegations is all in a day's work for Berlusconi. Myriad accusations of fraud, bribery, corruption and collusion with the Mafia have come to nothing over the years with the help of Europe's best lawyers and convenient changes in the law. As far as Berlusconi is concerned, this is "persecution" by the "cancerous growth" that is the Italian judiciary. In 2008 he announced: "Seven hundred and eighty-nine prosecutors and magistrates took an interest in the politician Berlusconi from 1994 to 2006 with the aim of subverting the votes of the Italian people." He was proud to have resisted a "calvary including 577 visits by police, 2,500 court hearings and €174m in lawyers' bills paid by me".

On Monday, Imane Fadil, a Moroccan model, had testified to seeing Minetti and a former beauty queen doing a pole-dance dressed as nuns, and that another had performed a striptease wearing a football shirt and the facemask of Ronaldinho, once Milan's Brazilian star. On Friday, after sitting through the police evidence, Berlusconi confirmed this to reporters along with rumours that other strippers favoured police or nurses' uniforms. Being showgirls, these women "are by their nature exhibitionists," he explained. "I was watching with great interest, because I was enjoying myself greatly and I will continue to do so." Yes, a newspaper allegation that he had paid €127,000 to three female witnesses was true, but that was because their lives had been ruined by this case.

There's no denying Berlusconi's generosity. Fadile testified that when on her first visit to the villa she wanted to leave early, Berlusconi took her to his library and gave her a watch, two rings and €2,000, saying: "Don't take offence but I known that you women are always in need." Anyone who slept with him was given much much more.

It's hard not to have some sneaking sympathy for the old roue. He's obviously suffering from the excess of libido that often burdened ambitious men. George Melly, on becoming impotent, memorably celebrated being no longer shackled to a lunatic.

But while, for example, Bill Clinton, the Kennedy clan, Dominic Strauss-Kahn and Tiger Woods treated the women they used like dirt, Berlusconi lavishes money, patronage and affection on them. Berlusconi's visit to his trial was designed to draw attention to an intriguing statement the same day from Angelino Alfano, whom he chose as his successor as party leader, that after the local elections in May the party will be making an important proclamation that will change the course of Italian politics. It's not all about bunga bunga.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards