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Prosecutors and Silvio Berlusconi's defense attorneys are building their cases in a tawdry prostitution scandal that may be the gravest threat ever to the Italian Prime Minister's political survival

Berlusconi last March in Brussels (courtesy of European People's Party)

MILAN - The prostitution scandal engulfing Silvio Berlusconi started with a phone call in May, and finds the prosecution now on the hunt for new evidence that could bring down the embattled Italian prime minister in the most embarrassing of trials.

That call, eight months ago, was from a Brazilian prostitute named Michelle Conceicao to her friend "Papi Silvio Berluscono" (that's how she wrote it down in her phone book, misspelling his last name). Conceicao wanted to inform the prime minister, who was in Paris, that a mutual friend had been arrested on suspicion of theft, and was being held at a police station. That mutual friend was Karima El Mahroug, known as Ruby "Rubacuori," or Ruby "the Heart Stealer," a Moroccan girl who was 17 at the time. (Berlusconi soon called the police in Milan to ask for the girl's release and sent an associate to pick her up).

Berlusconi's latest legal odyssey is possibly his toughest to date – and it's unfolding fast. The prime minister has refused to heed a summons by Milan prosecutors, but if they press ahead with their plan to seek a fast-track case, Berlusconi might find himself, in no more than two months, in the uncomfortable role of defendant in a prostitution-related trial.

Do the prosecutors have a smoking gun against Berlusconi?


Berlusconi is under investigation for two suspected crimes, abetting child prostitution and abuse of public office. Though perhaps of less interest to tabloids, the latter is more dangerous for Berlusconi for the evidence is stronger. Berlusconi does not deny that he made a phone call to police in May, though he has not commented on news reports that he identified the girl as a relative of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president. But the premier insists that he only intervened "to help a girl who was in trouble because I'm a good-hearted person," and that he did not know that the girl was a minor.

Some facts, however, appear to contradict his statements. First of all, if he didn't know the girl was a minor, why did he call his associate, Nicole Minetti, so that she could take custody of Ruby? Furthermore, Giorgia Ioffredi, who was on duty at the police station that night, received a phone call from a high-ranking Milan police official, Pietro Ostuni.

"Ostuni told me that it had been made known from Rome that the minor of Moroccan origin _ who I stress was the only minor at the police barracks in that moment _ was in fact a relative of Mubarak," Ioffredi said when questioned by the prosecutors. How could Ostuni, who called Ioffredi from home, know that the girl was a minor? Says Ostuni: "During the phone conversation (with Berlusconi) the word ‘minor" was never pronounced, but it was implicit that it was about a minor because the conversation was over granting somebody custody of a person who had no documents."

Berlusconi's phone call caused a frenzy of activity at the police hq, with dozens of phone calls among the various officers until 2 am, when Ruby was released into the custody of Minetti, the Berlusconi associate. The decision to release her, in fact, went against the ruling of the magistrate in charge of minors, Annamaria Fiorillo. Minetti then left Ruby in the hands of the Brazilian prostitute who had sought Berlusconi's help in the first place.

Berlusconi insists that the case is outside the Milan prosecutors' jurisdiction. He says the case should be brought before the Tribunal of Ministers (which deals with alleged crimes committed by government members in the execution of their duties). The prosecution maintains that Berlusconi's intervention to release Ruby did not pertain to his government duties but rather personal and private interests.

The second suspected crime is related to child prostitution. According to the prosecution, when Berlusconi intervened with the Milan police and abused his powers "to gain undue non-monetary profit for himself and the minor," he did so in order to prevent Ruby's full identification and prevent her from revealing the "red-light" nights she spent at Berlusconi's villa at Arcore, near Milan.

But in this case, the prosecutors rely on largely circumstantial evidence -- mostly wiretaps; statements offered by Ruby, which have not been made public; payments or money transfers to Ruby either from Berlusconi directly or from Giuseppe Spinelli, a Berlusconi aide who deals with the premier's personal finances. There are also several apartments that were made available to the girls who most frequently attended parties at the villa.

For this charge, the key witness would be Ruby herself, but in all the interviews she has given, she has always denied having sexual relations with Berlusconi. However, in wiretaps collected by the prosecutors, she tells her friends the opposite, and even makes it clear that she wants to make money out of the whole affair.

Prosecutors have established that she was at the premier's Arcore villa 12 times between February and May, thanks to a check on Ruby's cell phone activity, as the villa itself was never monitored. They have also ascertained her contacts with Spinelli in order to receive money, and bills from October have been tracked down and retrieved in Genoa. That same month, during a wiretap, Ruby -- who was likely "questioned" by Berlusconi's defense -- is heard recounting "hard-core scenes with the…person. "

So far, the only eye witness is Nadia Macri, a call girl who claims she saw Ruby during an orgy at the Arcore villa on April 24. But her statement is still being assessed. Berlusconi says he never knew Ruby was a minor, and that he never had sex with her. He insists the dinner parties he throws at his villa are convivial and elegant affairs. "I've never paid for a woman (for sex) in my whole life," he says.

The prosecutors say wiretaps, text messages, money changing hands and cell phone movements all show that Ruby has spent days and nights at Arcore, received several thousand euros, and even that she admitted to taking part in so-called "bunga bunga" sex parties. They maintain Berlusconi was aware of her age, since the girl was well known to Emilio Fede, a longtime Berlusconi friend who has also been placed under investigation. On the question of whether Berlusconi paid for sex, prosecutors say they can provide money transfers and several wiretaps.

Only a small part of the prosecutors' arsenal is known. New searches were carried out last week that may have turned up more evidence of payments (possibly envelops signed "Silvio B"), perhaps even very recent money transfers and photos. Technical experts are still hard at work unlocking the memory of mobile phones and computers seized.

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