How Italy's 'Teflon Tycoon' is battling to ensure charges don't stick

Manipulation of parliament, George Clooney, a far-fetched claim on Ruby's age: the Italian PM is fighting back
Click to follow
The Independent Online

That Silvio Berlusconi, the Teflon Tycoon, will stop at little to avoid a prison sentence is not in doubt. But his inventiveness under legal fire has become clearer than ever in the past 24 hours, with news that a startled George Clooney, the Hollywood star, will be called to the mogul's defence, while Berlusconi supporters in parliament launch another attempt to undermine the Italian legal-system.

The Prime Minister's lawyers want Mr Clooney to tell the imminent trial in which Mr Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with a minor that the premier's notorious soirees were in his words "elegant and sophisticated" events and not orgies involving prostitutes. But it's far from the only example of Berlusconi's wiliness. The range and sophistication of his strategies to avoid trial – whether through political manoeuvring, appeals to the public, or cunning exploitation of a legal system that has so far proven utterly unable to make a charge stick and turf him out of office – has evolved into a masterclass in how to keep your nose clean, even when everyone is insisting it must be dirty.

The Clooney incident is a case in point. Reports suggest the Hollywood A-lister popped over once from his nearby villa at Lake Como in the hope of tapping into the Berlusconi billions for his Darfur charity. Mr Clooney has not said if it was worth the trip, though he was "very surprised" to hear about his call to the witness box. Other Italian TV personalities and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo will also testify to the parties' respectability along with Equal Opportunities Minister (and former topless model) Mara Carfagna.

For its part, the prosecution claims that many of the parties degenerated later on with paid escorts competing in "bunga bunga" lap dances for the chance of even more lucrative one-on-one prime ministerial appointments, in what magistrates have clinically described as "phase three" of the evenings. The origin of bunga bunga is still unclear, although bizarrely it has been linked to parties held by Colonel Gaddafi, but it is taken to mean lascivious.

But yesterday there were other moves afoot too. Even as the Prime Minister's lawyers continued their preparations for the trial that opens on Wednesday, his supporters in the lower chamber were attempting to kill it. In the Rubygate case Mr Berlusconi is also accused of abuse of office, because he called the Milan police and pressured them to release the minor in question, 17-year-old belly dancer Karima "Ruby" el-Mahroug, following her arrest for theft in May last year. Mr Berlusconi told the police that she was the niece of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Mr Berlusconi's MPs nonetheless argue that because the Prime Minister believed he was acting in the national interest to prevent a diplomatic incident with Egypt, magistrates in Milan should not have jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, Mr Berlusconi's justice minister Angelino Alfano is pressing ahead with plans to cap trial lengths at two years. It is a move that would see many serious criminals get off – and release Mr Berlusconi from one or more of the other awkward trials (on tax evasion and corruption) that he faces.

Mr Berlusconi, who has been battling Italy's legal system since 1979, makes a lot of noise about always having been acquitted. Many of the charges, however, were dropped because of the statute of limitations. He shook off others by changing the law in his favour.

When that has not worked, he has tried to make the most of the opportunities court appearances offer. Since January, when the Constitutional Court threw out his ministerial immunity from prosecution, the Prime Minister has no longer been able to boycott all court appearances. Hence his high-profile visit to Milan's Palace of Justice on Monday this week as a judge decides whether to indict him on new tax fraud charges.

Berlusconi the showman made the most of it, with an interview on his Canale 5 TV channel beforehand, while one of political colleagues dispatched text messages to 600 members of his People of Liberty party to ensure headline-grabbing support outside the court. With this in mind prosecutors in the Ruby case have asked for a ban on TV cameras.

Most observers agree that if prosecutors are finally going to nail him, then the Rubygate sex and corruption trial is their best bet. "It involves clear-cut allegations, not complicated discussions on accounting, and the alleged crimes happened recently," said Piero Colaprico, the La Repubblica journalist who broke the story.

This explains the increasingly desperate-sounding claims from Berlusconi and his lawyers. In January the Prime Minister revealed that he had been in "an affectionate and stable relationship" with an unnamed woman since his wife Veronica Lario finally walked out on him 20 months ago. As people were picking their jaws up off the floor, his lawyers were next claiming that Ruby was a year older than everyone (including Ruby) actually thought.

But while these strategies have provoked ridicule, Milan's prosecutors, including the formidable Ilda Boccassini, are not laughing. History suggests it would be unwise to bet against Silvio Berlusconi in a court room.

Comments