October 19, 2012 4:00 pm

Berlusconi rejects sex charges

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Silvio Berlusconi gave a resolute defence in a Milan court yesterday against charges he paid a juvenile prostitute for sex and had abused his position as Italy’s prime minister at the time to secure the Moroccan teenager’s release from police detention.

“I never had any type of intimate relationship with her,” Mr Berlusconi said, reading from a prepared statement, referring to Karima El Mahroug, a nightclub dancer who goes by the stage name of “Ruby Heart-stealer”.

Flanked by his defence lawyers and with two bodyguards standing nearby in the packed courtroom, Mr Berlusconi said: “I have never in my life paid for sex”.

The 76-year-old former prime minister maintained that the expression “bunga bunga” to describe alleged erotic parties at his Milan villa in 2010 came from a joke he had made and that scenes of a sexual nature had never taken place.

The trial, dubbed “Ruby-gate” by the Italian media, began in April 2011 but was delayed for some months as Mr Berlusconi’s lawyers tried in vain to have the case transferred to a different tribunal.

His defence is expected to call a number of witnesses – reportedly including Hollywood actor George Clooney – to testify that the parties were entirely decorous, rebutting accounts by witnesses for the prosecution who said they were paid to attend and were given bonuses to have sex with Mr Berlusconi.

He has rejected these accounts as defamation. Yesterday’s statement was Mr Berlusconi’s first declaration in the trial.

The dominant leader of Italy’s centre-right since winning the first of his three election victories in 1994, Mr Berlusconi is fighting to clear his name and maintain his political relevance as he prepares to launch a new party to contest elections next spring.

Prime minister from 2008 until he was forced to step down last November as his coalition disintegrated, Mr Berlusconi’s government passed several measures to give him immunity from prosecution and keep him out of the courts.

Ms El Mahroug, who was 17 at the time of the alleged offences, has denied having sex with Mr Berlusconi, but says she received a gift of €7,000 from him.

“We were all absolutely convinced she was not a minor because she said she was 24 and because of her physical appearance and the way she acted,” Mr Berlusconi said, looking up occasionally from his papers to fix his eyes on the three stone-faced female judges who will decide his fate.

Mr Berlusconi has repeatedly accused “leftist” members of the judiciary of pursuing a political witch-hunt against him in his various trials that have included charges of corruption and tax fraud but have not resulted in a final conviction.

“I have read in the Italian and international media that this court has already decided I’m guilty,” Mr Berlusconi said yesterday. “I don’t want to believe that’s true because it would mean the judges are not impartial and that this is not a democratic country.”

Ilda Boccasini, the public prosecutor who has led cases against the billionaire politician and media baron several times, and has also worked on high-profile anti-mafia and political corruption trials, rocked back and forth in her chair during Mr Berlusconi’s 45-minute monologue. She was unable to question him as he opted to read the statement rather than take questions from his lawyers or the prosecution.

Mr Berlusconi also rejected accusations that he put pressure on the head of a Milan police station to release Ms El Mahroug after she was detained on suspicion of theft. Repeating past public statements, Mr Berlusconi said he thought she was related to Hosni Mubarak, then president of Egypt, and that he had called the police station only because he wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident.

Mr Berlusconi said he was “shocked” when he found out she was not Egyptian and that she was a minor.

After Mr Berlusconi’s statement, his lawyers called several witnesses, including a pianist, who said they had attended parties at his villa and that nothing of a sexual nature had taken place. The trial continues and could last into the election campaign season, with the charges carrying a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

However, even if he is convicted, Mr Berlusconi might well not spend any time in jail considering the time the two appeals he is entitled to are likely to take.

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