Silvio Berlusconi won an astonishing reprieve today in the sex case that threatened to destroy him.
Milan judges cleared the former Prime Minister of all charges in the Rubygate case, in which he was accused of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his office to conceal the crime.
The prosecution is almost certain to challenge the decision at the Supreme Court, but for now a definitive sentence, that would almost certainly see the 77-year-old go to jail, seems much further off.
The billionaire was accused of paying for sex with an erotic dancer, Moroccan-born Karima el-Mahroug, known as Ruby the Heart Stealer, in 2010 when she was 17 years old. Paying someone under 18 for sex is illegal in Italy.
Despite him inviting the 17-year-old to sex parties and paying her huge amounts of money, the Milan appeals court decided Mr Berlusconi was not guilty of participating in underage prostitution because it had not been proved the tycoon knew she was under age.
The mogul had appeared so terrified of Rubygate charges that this week he wrote an article covering two full pages in the Berlusconi family paper Il Giornale declaring his innocence. Under law changes that the former Prime Minister introduced in 2005, sex criminals cannot avoid custodial sentences. But the billionaire’s insistence he hosted “refined and elegant” dinners has contrasted tragi-comically with the avalanche of tawdry claims that emerged during the investigation; from strippers in nuns’ costumes fondling each other, to dental hygienists and bankrupt impresarios pimping on the mogul’s behalf.
The three-time premier was also accused of abusing his powers in trying to conceal the sex crime. Prosecutors said he lied to the police – telling them Ms Mahroug was the granddaughter of the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – to have her released from custody on the night of 27 May 2010, when she was held for suspected theft, before she could talk about the sex parties.
Milan’s appeal court appears to have decided that since the original convictions in June last year, when Mr Berlusconi was sentenced to a total of seven years for both crimes, a crucial law change had been ratified but the Supreme Court. This says that abuse of office has not been committed without clear evidence that person in power has offered benefits to the person doing the favour.
But even the mogul’s legal team was taken aback by the decision. “The verdict goes beyond our rosiest predictions,” said Franco Coppi, one of the defence lawyers.
Mr Berlusconi has always denied wrongdoing, claiming he is the victim of left-wing prosecutors and judges. But shortly after today’s verdict he declared: “Respect to the magistrature, which today confirmed what I’ve always thought, that is, the great majority of Italian magistrates do their work silently, fairly and admirably.”
Following the decision, Berlusconi grinned as he left the hospice near Milan where he is serving nine months for tax fraud. Observers told The Independent of their surprise at the verdict. Renzo Orlandi, a criminal law expert at Bologna University, said: “It’s strange, also because the accused was cleared due to ‘non-existence of the act’. We’ll understand better when we learn the reasoning behind the judgment.” Piero Colaprico, the journalist from La Repubblica who broke the Rubygate story, described today’s verdict as “remarkable”. The prosecution is almost certain to challenge the verdict.