One of the most extraordinary and eagerly awaited trials in recent political history kicks off today with the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi facing down squalid sex and corruption charges that could deliver a total of 15 years in prison.
Mr Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with an under-age prostitute and then lying and abusing his powers to cover it up. He insists the charges are part of a politically motivated attack by leftist magistrates.
At 9.30am today in the midst of a media scrum in the fourth criminal division of Milan's Palace of Justice, prosecuting magistrates will begin arguing their case for the tycoon leader's conviction. Despite 20,000 pages of evidence in their possession, the size of the struggle they face is neatly illustrated by the fact the 74-year-old premier will not even turn up in court to face his accusers.
But for all the grins and braggadocio, and the contemptuous attacks on his opponents, Mr Berlusconi knows he is facing the most dangerous legal challenge in a career marked by clashes with the law.
Until now, the accusations he has faced, and ultimately beaten, have involved tax and financial corruption, with evidence consisting of faint, 10-year-old accounting trails winding across countries and continents.
This time around, the alleged crimes are straightforward, recent and strikingly tawdry. Mr Berlusconi is said to have paid for sex with the teen belly dancer Karima "Ruby" el-Mahroug on 13 occasions between February and May last year while she was still 17 – a crime punishable with three years in jail.
He is also charged with abuse of office for telling police the teenager was the granddaughter of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, in order to have her released – and removed from the clutches of inquisitive magistrates – after she was arrested for theft in May last year. Such abuse of office can be punished with 12-year term.
"I don't think any Western democracy has ever seen a case like this of a prime minister in office faced with accusations like prostitution with a minor," said Antonio Padellaro, of the campaigning left-wing daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, which has broken many of the stories in the case.
"Wednesday will be an exceptional day for Italian politics and for the entire world, which is curious to know exactly how the trial will end."
It comes after an extraordinary, scandal-packed 24 months, which began with Mr Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, finally walking out on him with the telling comment that she could no longer stay with someone "who consorted with minors".
The mountains of testimonies and wiretaps to be presented by Milan's prosecutors suggest that Ms Mahroug and over 30 other young women regularly attended parties at Mr Berlusconi's mansion at Arcore, near Milan, in exchange for large sums of money and valuable gifts, including jewellery and watches. Ms Mahroug has admitted accepting a €7,000 (£6,100) payment from Mr Berlusconi. But she denied that they had sex.
Many of the leaked reports have suggested that young women at the "bunga-bunga" parties competed in sexual games and erotic dancing for the chance of spending the night with Mr Berlusconi. The seedy aspects of the investigation have dominated the headlines. But experts say the affair will have major legal-political ramifications as the executive and the judiciary seemingly battle it out over the fate of the premier.
This was underlined by the fact that yesterday afternoon Mr Berlusconi's small majority in the lower house of parliament voted to remove jurisdiction of the case away from his perceived nemeses, the Milan magistrates, to a special ministerial court. As a result of the vote, the Constitutional Court will now rule on who has jurisdiction.
But Milan law professor Valerio Onida, the emeritus president of the Constitutional Court, told The Independent that ahead of that ruling the trial would continue in Milan. "And I don't think it's very likely that the Constitutional Court will vote to take the trial away from Milan, anyway," he said.
Another legal expert said Milan's prosecutors would have their work cut out for them. Carlo Guarnieri, a law professor in Bologna, said convictions would require stronger evidence than those testimonies and wiretaps so far reported in newspapers: "This is a case which is difficult to sustain in court. It is very likely that all these people involved will tell very different versions."
The questions he must answer
* The premier denies having had sex with Karima "Ruby" el Mahroug. If so, why do some of the testimonies taken from young women present at the parties suggest otherwise?
* If the parties were "refined and elegant" events, as he suggests, why did Ruby herself tell investigators about "bunga-bunga" sessions. And why did the participants appear "in masks, performing striptease and erotic dances, touching themselves and each other and being touched on their intimate parts by Mr Berlusconi" according to the testimonies of some present?
* If, as the Prime Minister claims, he has never paid for sex, why were the young women participants in the bung-bunga sessions given thousands of euros at a time? And why were many put up rent-free in an apartment complex outside Milan?
* The premier claims he was unaware of Miss el Mahroug's real age. But is that very likely given that his close friend, and alleged procurer of prostitutes, Emilio Fede, introduced Miss el Mahroug to the premier after having met the young woman at a beauty contest in Sicily a year earlier where she gave her age as 16?
* Given the likelihood that he was told that Miss el Mahroug was a young Moroccan belly dancer, why would the premier think she was the niece or granddaughter of the Egyptian president?
* If the premier did believe her well-being was a cause for diplomatic concern, why did her have her collected from the police station by someone with no governmental position, who took her back to the flat of a Brazilian prostitute whom she fought and was soon attracting the attention of the authorities once again?
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