Berlusconi fate in judges' hands

Silvio Berlusconi`s future hung in the balance Tuesday as judges worked late into the night, mulling whether to definitively clear him of paying for sex with a minor then using his power to cover it up.

Rome: Silvio Berlusconi`s future hung in the balance Tuesday as judges worked late into the night, mulling whether to definitively clear him of paying for sex with a minor then using his power to cover it up.

Hours after a senior prosecutor had described him as having a "dragon`s passion" for teenage girls, the judges at Italy`s top court were still considering a verdict which could bring to an end the long-running legal saga linked to "bunga bunga" sex parties hosted by the prime minister.

Berlusconi, 78, was convicted in 2013 of the most serious charges he has faced in a scandal-tainted career only to be acquitted on appeal a year later.

The quashing of his seven-year prison term and a lifetime ban from public office triggered a counter-appeal by prosecutors to the Court of Cassation.

The judges` deliberations began after a three and a half hour hearing earlier on Tuesday.

Berlusconi, a billionaire businessman whose empire includes the AC Milan soccer club, has always denied paying for sex with a 17-year-old dancer called Karima El-Mahroug who went by the stage name "Ruby the heart stealer."

And he says he only tried to help the Moroccan national when she was later arrested for an alleged theft because he thought she was a niece of the then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.Prosecutor Edoardo Scardaccione told Tuesday`s hearing that claim deserved contempt and had held Italy up to ridicule.

"The Mubarak`s niece episode was worthy of a Mel Brooks film," he said. "The whole world was laughing at us behind our backs."

Scardaccione insisted all charges against the ageing party lover should be reinstated, saying Berlusconi and his entourage knew full well that Ruby was 17, below the legal minimum of 18 for prostitutes in Italy. "He had a dragon`s passion for minors," the prosecutor told the court.

Berlusconi was not present at the hearing.

If his acquittal is upheld, Berlusconi will be free to spearhead opposition to landmark political reforms Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is trying to guide through parliament.

If the ruling goes against him, a fresh appeal trial will have to take place, an outcome analysts say would further diminish the billionaire`s authority over his once-powerful Forza Italia (FI) party.

"For Berlusconi`s immediate future, the outcome is quite crucial," said Giovanni Orsina, an academic at the LUISS business school in Rome and an expert on the media magnate`s impact on Italian politics.

Orsina believes Berlusconi`s legal woes -- he has just completed a community service for tax fraud -- have helped Renzi dominate the political landscape.

"Berlusconi`s clarity of mind basically disappeared (with the tax conviction)," he argued. "Since then he has been uncertain, unclear and politically ineffective.

"But if the case goes his way -- and my feeling is that it is likely to -- then he remains a very powerful man. As long as he has the votes in parliament he can damage Renzi."Renzi relied on support from Berlusconi to steer landmark labour reforms through parliament late last year.

But their alliance collapsed last month after Renzi successfully backed an actively anti-Berlusconi candidate, Sergio Mattarella, to become Italy`s new president.

The Forza Italia leader has since vowed to fight proposals to effectively abolish the Senate and adopt a new electoral law designed to produce governments with working parliamentary majorities.

The weakening of Berlusconi`s influence was underlined Tuesday when FI lawmakers complained after they were ordered to vote against the government on the Senate reform bill, which was comfortably approved despite his interference.

The bill could yet face stiffer opposition however and Renzi is battling to keep some of his allies in parliament on board -- a situation which means a revitalised Berlusconi could present him with major headaches, particularly in the Senate.

Even if Berlusconi shakes off the Ruby case, he could yet face further sanction by the courts over charges that he paid off many of the young women who attended his famous soirees in return for false testimony in the Ruby trial.

Also outstanding is a charge that he paid a senator three million euros ($4.0 million) in 2006 to join his party and destabilise a centre-left government. That case has come to court but is widely expected to time out under the statute of limitations later this year before any verdict is reached.


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