Under-age sex inquiry probes PM's finances

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The Independent Online

Italian magistrates yesterday sought to prise open the private financial accounts of Premier Silvio Berlusconi to investigate whether he paid for sex with an under-age prostitute.

A 300-page judicial report posted on the parliamentary website claimed that "a significant number of young women prostituted themselves at his residence for financial payments".

The magistrates hope to use the dossier, presented to the lower House yesterday, to gain access to potentially incriminating documents from Mr Berlusconi's accountant, Giuseppe Spinelli.

Mr Berlusconi is suspected by prosecutors of abusing his office in attempting to cover up the act. He has denied both charges, which if proven, carry significant jail sentences.

The snowballing sex and corruption scandal has led the humiliated Mr Berlusconi to consider resignation after being "profoundly shocked" by the latest wave of headlines, according to La Stampa newspaper, citing sources close to the Italian leader. It reported that even some of the Prime Minister's closest supporters felt his time was running out.

In a television appearance on Sunday, the billionaire media mogul denied that he had ever paid to have sex – and revealed that he had been enjoying "an affectionate and stable relationship" with an unnamed woman since his wife Veronica Lario finally walked out on him 20 months ago. On leaving, Mrs Lario issued the stinging remark that she could not stay with a man who "consorted with minors".

The Prime Minister's claim was met with ridicule yesterday. Under the headline "The woman without a face and the fictional life of Silvio Berlusconi", an article in La Repubblica said: "Perhaps she [the new partner] is a beautiful 60-something – and therefore much younger than the Prime Minister. Or maybe she's a demure, young orphan, fresh out of college and captivated by this man, like so many others."

The same centre-left newspaper claimed yesterday that the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, was also present at one of Mr Berlusconi's parties attended by the Moroccan belly dancer Karima "Ruby" El Mahroug, then 17, the woman at the centre of the claims of under-age prostitution, together with nine other young women.

It said Mr Putin was hosted at Mr Berlusconi's Arcore mansion when he paid a flying visit to Milan on 25 April last year. Among the women present were two escorts who had previously been recruited to attend adult parties or "festini" at the Prime Minister's Rome residence by shady businessman Giampaolo Tarantini, who has since been detained on suspicion of drugs trafficking.

Defending himself from the sex charges during his six-minute TV broadcast on his own Rete 4 channel on Sunday, Mr Berlusconi said it was "absurd to think" that he had ever paid for relations with a woman, and that he regarded the notion as degrading to his dignity.

Opposition leader Pier Luigi Bersani of the Democratic Party dismissed Mr Berlusconi's video message as an "embarrassing and distressing spectacle", adding that "he must think the public are imbeciles".

Few people believe that convictions for Mr Berlusconi resulting from "Rubygate" are likely under Italy's convoluted legal system, despite press reports suggesting magistrates thought they had enough evidence of wrong-doing to press for a fast-track trial.

"Instead it's simply more torment for Mr Berlusconi," said Professor James Walston of the American University in Rome, predicting that fresh elections were now more likely. Yesterday, even Mr Berlusconi's most powerful coalition ally, Umberto Bossi of the Northern League, appeared to say that elections were the way ahead, given the government's wafer-thin majority.

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