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ROME — Three-time Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to seven years in jail with a lifetime ban from politics for having paid for sex with an underage woman and abusing his power in trying to cover it up.
The billionaire media tycoon is sure to appeal the verdict. But the case is significant as the harshest verdict yet for the 76-year-old, who has been hounded by legal woes since he first entered politics nearly 20 years ago.
The conviction is Berlusconi’s third in nine months.
Last October, Berlusconi was sentenced to four years behind bars on charges of tax evasion in connection with the Mediaset television and cinema giant he controls. And in December another judge sentenced him to a year in jail in a wiretap case connected to the Milan daily Il Giornale, which is run by his younger brother, Paolo Berlusconi. Both cases are already under appeal.
In this case, Berlusconi was charged with paying an underage girl, erotic dancer Karima el-Mahroug — best known by her stage name “Ruby the Heartstealer” — for sex and then lying to police to get her let off on minor shoplifting charges. Though the underage sex charges have attracted the most attention, the abuse of power allegations were the most serious.
Prosecutors claim they could prove Berlusconi paid el-Mahroug at least €2,000 ($2,560) each time the two met and that he also gave her a cash gift of up to €5 million ($6.4 million).
Surprisingly, el-Mahroug was never called on to testify in the trial, though both she and Berlusconi denied having had sexual relations and that Berlusconi made a large cash gift. At one point, Berlusconi attorney Niccolo Ghedini argued that the smaller gifts to el-Mahroug showed Berlusconi was “humane” toward a young girl with financial difficulties.
Berlusconi’s lawyers also dismissed the abuse of power accusations — Berlusconi was reported to have claimed that the Morocco-born el-Mahroug was the niece of then-Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak — by saying he thought the claims he made at the time were true.
El-Mahroug, along with former newsman Emilio Fede, ex-talent agent Lele Mora and Nicole Minetti a former centerfold girl and parliamentarian, are involved in a separate case based on charges Fede, Mora, and Monetti procured prostitutes for Berlusconi.
Coincidentally, the seven-year sentence and lifetime ban from politics is exactly the sentence given to the Berlusconi-inspired character in Nanni Moretti’s 2006 Cannes Palme d’Or-nominated drama Il Caimano (The Caiman).
The Italian press reported the news aggressively, breaking into scheduled television programs and running banner headlines on news sites. Reaction ran along political lines, with Il Giornale calling it a “Shameful Sentence,” but the left-leaning La Repubblica declaring, “Justice, Finally.”
Despite the ongoing legal woes, Berlusconi has been splitting time between his defense, his role as a key supporter of the new Italian government of Enrico Letta (Letta is himself the nephew of key Berlusconi lieutenant Gianni Letta), and his stewardship of Mediaset. Berlusconi has left the day-to-day operations of Mediaset in the hands of his 44-year-old son, Pier Silvio Berlusconi, and the company has thrived with that setup. Shares closed Monday, before the verdict, at €2.43 ($3.13), down slightly on the day but more than double their all-time low of €1.16 ($1.50) from December.
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