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CRIME

‘Bunga bunga’ bribes trial on hold, Berlusconi ruling nears

Silvio Berlusconi will learn by the end of this month if he is to stand trial for allegedly buying the silence of call girls and others who attended his infamous "bunga bunga" sex parties.

'Bunga bunga' bribes trial on hold, Berlusconi ruling nears
Berlusconi speaking last month. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

The expected timing of a keenly awaited ruling emerged on Wednesday as the trial of 23 people accused of conspiring to protect the 80-year-old former prime minister was opened and immediately adjourned until July 3rd for procedural reasons.

Among those accused of perjury, accepting bribes and other offences is Karima El-Mahroug, an exotic dancer known as Ruby the heart stealer who was allegedly showered with gifts worth seven million euros ($7.4 million) by Berlusconi.

READ ALSO: Berlusconi at 80: I have regrets

The billionaire tycoon was cleared in 2015 of having paid for sex with Ruby when she was 17.

A judge at Italy's highest appeal court quashed an earlier conviction on the grounds that Berlusconi could not have known Ruby was under 18 and that he was therefore committing a crime.

Frustrated prosecutors emerged from that trial determined to prove that many witnesses had lied under oath in return for lavish gifts in the form of cash, jewellery, holidays and even properties.

Ruby testified that she had not sex with Berlusconi, claiming she was lying when she was recorded on a wiretap telling friends the contrary.

Proceedings against Berlusconi are lagging behind those for the rest of the accused because of his need for medical treatment following open-heart surgery in June.

The media magnate has beaten numerous criminal charges over the years with his only definitive conviction to date being one for corporate tax fraud, which led to him being kicked out of parliament.

He remains the leader of his Forza Italia party but, with its fortunes on the decline, Berlusconi's political influence has also waned.

Even if convicted, there is little chance of him ending up behind bars because of Italy's restrictions on penal sanctions against the elderly.

READ ALSO: How Silvio Berlusconi fascinated and appalled

POLITICS

Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni and her allies on Tuesday began what is set to be a weeks-long process of forming a new government, with crises looming on several fronts.

Italy's Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, which triumphed in Sunday’s elections, has no experience of power but must assemble a cross-party team to tackle sky-high inflation and energy prices, and relations with a wary Europe.

The 45-year-old is hoping to be the first woman to lead Italy as prime minister, but needs her allies, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party and former Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, for a majority in parliament.

The division of the top jobs – notably economy, foreign affairs, the defence and interior ministries – will always be political but now, more than ever, “will have to reflect areas of expertise”, the Stampa daily noted.

President Sergio Mattarella will begin consultations on who should lead the new government only once the Senate and Chamber presidents have been elected by parliament, which meets on October 13th.

In the past, it has taken anything between four and 12 weeks for a new administration to take office.

But the first deadline for action is coming up fast, with Italy due to submit its draft plan for next year’s budget to Brussels by October 15th.

READ ALSO: The five biggest challenges facing Italy’s new government

The parties have said they want to make major changes, with a manifesto promising to slash taxes, roll back welfare, and “revise” the terms of Italy’s recovery fund agreement with Brussels – potentially putting the rest of the deal, worth a total of almost 200 billion euros to Italy, at risk.

EU economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said he urged “the next Italian government to ensure that this opportunity is seized”, saying the fund was key to putting Italy on a path to “strong and durable growth”.

Agnese Ortolani, senior Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said she expected Meloni “to continue to reassure the markets by picking a non-controversial figure for the role of finance minister”.

“She will also want to avoid reputational damage by nominating someone who is not perceived as credible by the markets,” she said in a note.

READ ALSO: Doubts rise over ‘loose cannon’ Salvini after Italy’s election

Meloni’s allies have been pitching for heavyweight positions, Salvini wanting his old job as interior minister back, and Berlusconi eyeing president of the Senate.

Their parties’ disappointing performance in the polls, however, with neither reaching 10 percent while Brothers of Italy’s secured 26 percent, means Meloni may already be planning to sideline them.

League leader Matteo Salvini (L) and Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni are set to form a government together following the election. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Salvini and Berlusconi do not see eye-to-eye with Meloni on several fronts, including on Russia and public spending to relieve the cost of living crisis.

With all the potential friction ahead, winning the elections “was almost the easy part”, commented Luciano Fontana, chief editor of the Corriere della Sera daily.

Berlusconi downplayed concerns he would rock the boat Tuesday, claiming his party was ready to make compromises “in the country’s interests”.

His ally Antonio Tajani, a former European parliament president, is tipped as possible foreign minister, an appointment which could both appease Berlusconi and assuage international fears that Meloni’s Eurosceptic populist party plans to pick fights with Brussels.

Salvini may prove more difficult. He is currently on trial for allegedly abusing his powers as interior minister in 2019 to block migrants at sea, which some say could rule him out returning to the job.

“It won’t be an easy relationship. It’s likely that (Salvini) will be given a more marginal role in the government than he wants,” Sofia Ventura, political sciences professor at Bologna University, told the foreign press association in Rome.

“Defusing Salvini” without sparking a backlash that could weaken the government is “Meloni’s first test”, the Repubblica daily said.

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