The man seen as the Italian right's leader-in-waiting has called on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to quit, should he fail to refute allegations that he abused his power to keep the lid on yet another sex scandal.
Parliamentary speaker Gianfranco Fini finally weighed in to the political storm that has raged since claims emerged that the 74-year-old pressured police into releasing a 17-year-old Moroccan lap dancer accused of theft.
Mr Berlusconi is no stranger to being caught – politically speaking – with his trousers down. But in addition to the familiar elements of a French sex farce, he has now been accused of abusing the power of his office, which is a criminal offence in Italy.
Reports suggest the mogul premier put pressure on Milan police to quietly release Karima Keyek, who is known as Ruby, on 27 May this year.
The two had met when she attended a Valentine's Day party at the Prime Minister's mansion. Italian newspapers have printed transcripts suggesting Milan police were falsely told that the girl, who had been accused of stealing €3,000, was the granddaughter of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Speaking in front of a TV audience, parliamentary speaker Mr Fini said: "If the allegations are confirmed, the Prime Minister should step down.
"If there was that intervention [by the Prime Minister and his office] and if it's true that it was claimed that the girl was the relative of a head of state, then it would indicate a nonchalance; a corruption symptomatic of the use of state office for private gain."
On the night in question, the teenager was eventually released into the custody of Berlusconi aid Nicole Minette, apparently in line with a request by the Premier's office, which called police HQ an hour after the PM's intervention.
Yesterday it emerged that the Milan prosecuting magistrate overseeing juvenile cases, Annamaria Fiorillo, said she had never given permission for Ruby to be released and had not been aware that she had been freed until two months later. The Interior Minister Roberto Maroni insisted that the police had acted correctly in releasing the girl, who celebrated her 18th birthday at the weekend in the company of C-list celebrities in Genova, where she is reportedly staying with a porn film director. But even Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, Mr Berlusconi's most powerful coalition ally, has publicly criticised the Prime Minister for making the personal phone call to the Milan police station.
The Italian newspapers are also continuing to demand answers. Corriere della Sera listed what it described as six unresolved questions regarding Mr Berlusconi's version of events. Chief among them was the suggestion that the Prime Minister had lied about the girl's parentage; the police's disputed claim that there were no secure care home places available that night and whether police had acted correctly in releasing her without the magistrate's say-so. The centre-left La Repubblica has suggested the Premier sought the teenager's release to avoid her spilling the beans on her participation in one of his notorious parties.
But Mr Berlusconi yesterday insisted he had done nothing wrong. "My resignation would cause serious damage to the centre-right and to all whole country," he said, as opposition MPs and the public insisted he was making Italy an international laughing stock.
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