'Rubygate': jail time still eludes Berlusconi

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Silvio Berlusconi and Moroccan Karima El Mahroug, nicknamed Ruby the Heartstealer. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/Giuseppe Aresu/AFP
11:34 CEST+02:00
An Italian appeals court prepared to issue a ruling on Friday in the case against ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi for having sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of power.

Berlusconi was not present at the start of the hearing in Milan, where the panel of judges considering the case told the court it would issue its ruling at around 1pm CET.

The disgraced billionaire tycoon is still serving a sentence of community service at a centre for Alzheimer's patients near Milan following a prior conviction for tax fraud linked to his business empire, Mediaset.

Whatever the result of the appeal, the prospect of Berlusconi seeing the inside of a prison cell remains remote. The Italian justice system allows convicted offenders to remain at liberty until all avenues of appeal have been exhausted. Berlusconi is expected to take his case to the Supreme Court if he loses on Friday.

Prosecutors have asked the judges to uphold the seven-year sentence for having sex for money with a then 17-year-old exotic dancer called Karima El-Mahroug, who is now better known by her stage name as "Ruby the Heart Stealer".

Berlusconi has also been convicted of pressuring the police while he was
still prime minister to release her from custody when she was arrested for theft - apparently out of concern that she could reveal their liaison.

If the conviction is upheld, the 77-year-old Berlusconi would have one more chance to appeal to the supreme court and the sentence would be suspended pending that ruling.

'Disastrous for Berlusconi'

The supreme court confirming the conviction would mean Berlusconi is considered a repeat offender in the eyes of the law, which would exclude the possibility of community service and would lead either to house arrest or prison.

"It would be disastrous for Berlusconi," said Carlo Federico Grosso, a professor of criminal law at Turin University and a lawyer in several high-profile cases.

Federico Grosso said a definitive conviction in the Ruby case would mean that Berlusconi would have to serve three more years under the Mediaset case that had been written off because he was considered a first-time offender.

If the sentence is confirmed at seven years that would mean a 10-year sentence, most likely under house arrest, for the ageing playboy who began his political career two decades ago.

Sentencing guidelines for non-violent crimes in Italy encourage judges not to sentence over-70s to serve prison time but the final decision is up to the
judge and there is precedent for custodial sentences being handed out.

Berlusconi is also currently on trial for allegedly bribing a senator with €3.0 million in 2006 to join his party and destabilise a centre-left government.

In another case, prosecutors have requested that he face trial on suspicion of paying off a pimp to provide false testimony in an investigation on prostitutes who attended parties at his residences in Milan and Rome.

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Berlusconi is also being investigated for allegedly paying off witnesses in the Ruby trial - the young women who attended his soirees - to provide false testimony.

The charges in that case have not yet been formally levied. The legal saga has political significance since Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's centre-left government is relying on votes from Berlusconi's centre-right opposition coalition to pass through key constitutional reforms.

Italian media have reported that Berlusconi may be sticking to a pact with Renzi on the reforms, including an overhaul of the electoral law, in the hope of receiving an amnesty.

President Giorgio Napolitano has ruled out any possible pardon until Berlusconi, who has always protested his innocence and says he is the victim of a left-wing plot by prosecutors and judges, recognises his guilt.

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