It is the sort of incident that you might expect to happen in a brutal dictatorship: on 29 May about 40 heavily armed police stormed a house to snatch a mother and her young daughter. The woman was erroneously accused of possessing false documents, then whisked out of the country in a private jet – before her lawyers had a chance to intervene.
The incident occurred not in the third world but in Italy. The destination of Alma Shalabayeva and her six-year-old child, however, was Kazakhstan, the stamping ground of the despot Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Now that Italy and the rest of its government has woken up to the fact that the interior ministry performed an extraordinary rendition on the family of the leading Kazakh dissident Mukhtar Ablyazov, parliamentarians are demanding to know how it happened. The more pertinent question, however, might be “why did it happen?”
A colourful clue emerged in the pages of the left-wing daily paper Il Fatto Quotidiano last Wednesday, with claims that the former premier Silvio Berlusconi was invited to a bunga-bunga style sex party with Nazarbayev in the dictator’s dacia in 2009.
Claudio Barbaro, a former MP in Mr Berlusconi’s PDL party, said the tycoon had told him how, following an official meeting, the mogul was presented with dozens of topless young women “dressed only with bits of metal” in the Kazakh leader’s country residence.
Despite being told to take his pick, the media mogul, who was last month convicted of paying for sex with an under-age prostitute at one of his own adult soirees, was unusually abstemious: “Sorry, Nursultan, but my religion doesn’t allow polygamy,” he said. But that didn’t stop Mr Berlusconi referring to the dictator, who is frequently excoriated by human rights groups for his abuses, as “my dear friend”.
The rendition of Mr Ablyazov’s family has threatened the stability of the Italy’s fragile left-right coalition. Many on the centre-left believe that Angelino Alfano, the interior minister and a key Berlusconi lieutenant, arranged the deportation on the orders of Mr Berlusconi. Both Mr Berlusconi and Mr Alfano insist they had nothing to do with incident.
Instead, a senior civil servant in the interior ministry, Giuseppe Procaccini, was made to fall on his sword. But within hours of resigning, he undermined Mr Alfano’s claims of innocence, saying, “Alfano told me to receive the Kazakh ambassador at the interior ministry and that it was a delicate issue”. Astonishingly, it has emerged that the Kazakh ambassador to Rome was able to supervise the capture and arrest of Ms Shalabayeva and her daughter from a command centre in the Italian Interior Ministry.
The incident has made Italy a figuraccia – an international laughing stock. The premier Enrico Letta, who is trying to keep the wheels on a lumbering coalition and drag Italy from the abyss of endless recession, admitted as much on Friday. “It’s embarrassed and discredited us,” he said.
In truth, shady deals with unpleasant regimes have been the hallmark of Italian foreign policy for most of the Berlusconi era – that is, the best part of the last 20 years.
Mr Berlusconi’s close relations with Vladimir Putin, provide one source of these concerns. In 2010 it emerged from Wikileaks documents that the former US Ambassador to Rome, Ronald Spogli, feared that the Russian premier Vladimir Putin bought the political compliance of his Italian opposite number.
A report dated 26 January 2009, approved by Mr Spogli, quotes US embassy sources within the Prime Minister’s own Pdl party as believing "that Berlusconi and his cronies are profiting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia".
The veteran political pundit James Walston, of the American University of Rome, noted at the time that the “writing was on the wall” when Mr Berlusconi made a personal visit to Mr Putin’s country home in October 2009, accompanied only by his shadowy Russian-speaking go-between Valentino Valentini.
“There were no ministers, no civil servants present. No records of what was said – or what personal deals were cut,” he said. “That should have set alarm bells ringing.” Mr Berlusconi denied the accusations.
The Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was another of Mr Berlusconi’s good friends. Gaddafi, who was for much of his rein an international pariah, received a series of increasingly obsequious welcomes in Rome from 2008 onwards as Italy sought to cash in the former colony’s huge oils and gas reserves.
Italy wasn’t alone in wanting energy deals with an oil-rich nation. But critics of the prime minister pointed out that his Fininvest holding company and Gaddafi’s Lafitrade were shareholders in the Tunisian media company Quinta Communications, making the pair business partners.
Relations between Italy and Kazakhstan are also based on more than sentiment. Eni, the Italian state energy firm, is also actively involved the former Soviet state. Magistrates in Milan are investigating claims that kickbacks worth €20m (£17m) were made to firm up substantial contracts.
Commenting on the Ablyazov case this week, Marco Travaglio, a prominent political polemicist, wrote: “Since Silvio Berlusconi became the owner of Italy, our country has been systematically prostituted to one foreign government or another in defiance of national sovereignty, the constitution and the law”.
But in a coincidence this week, the world was reminded of another extraordinary rendition from Italy, when the former CIA official Robert Seldon Lady detained in Panama by Interpol. The US spy was convicted by an Italian court of the 2003 kidnapping of a terror suspect, Abu Omar, who was allegedly flown to Egypt and tortured. This incident only became public thanks to the action of Italian magistrates. The failure of the Berlusconi administration to halt the deportation led to accusations that this was a favour to the tycoon’s friend George W Bush.
There’s no proof of these claims, but the closer you look, the murkier it all seems. So in the past 48 hours we’ve not only learnt that the Kazakh ambassador was allowed to manage the deportation from Rome as he saw fit, but that President Nazarbayev was in Italy, in the Sardinian house of one of Mr Berlusconi’s financial advisers, during these events.
Meanwhile, attempts to force Alfano’s resignation have crumbled, and Mr Berlusconi’s proxy in government will stay exactly where the billionaire ex-premier wants him.
My dear friends
* Belarussians “love you, which is shown by the elections,” Mr Berlusconi told Belarus President Lukashenko, who is regularly accused of election rigging, after firming up energy deals in 2009. Belarus was kicked out of the Council of Europe in 1997 over human rights violations.
* Also in 2009 Mr Berlusconi kept his host German Chancellor Angela Merkel waiting because he was so engrossed in a phone call with the Turkish PM, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Berlusconi’s office said the Italian leader had been trying to convince Erdogan to accept Europe’s candidate for the next head of Nato.
* Mr Berlusconi’s relationship with Russia’s leader was underlined at a press conference in Sardinia in April 2008, when a Russian journalist confronted Mr Putin with rumours of an affair. “Not one word of truth,” said Putin – while Berlusconi, shaping his hand into a pistol, pretended to take aim at the reporter. Mr Putin returned the favour in 2011 declaring that “however much they nag Signor Berlusconi for his special attitude to the beautiful sex … he has shown himself as a responsible statesman”.