Billionaire Berlusconi has been ‘cleared’, ‘acquitted’ of having sex with Moroccan underage prostitute ‘Ruby’ Karima el-Mahroug, and then of using his influence to cover it up. The media coverage of Italy’s appeal court decision last week seemed pretty clear cut. Silvio has been right all along – he is indeed a saint, eternally harassed and groundlessly persecuted by ‘red’ magistrates.
On receiving the news the media mogul was jubilant. In characteristic style, he played the part of victim, declaring that he was ‘deeply moved’ by the verdict, which reversed a lower court conviction that had carried a seven-year prison sentence and a lifetime ban on holding political office.
He added: ‘Only those close to me over the years know how I have suffered at these unjust and defamatory accusations….My first thoughts today go to my loved ones, who have suffered with me years of media aggression, gossip, slander, and who have remained beside me with unmatched affection and serenity.’
The three times PM has always denied the charges, with both he and Mahroug, who was 17 when she hung out at Berlusconi’s villa, denying performing the act. Admit nothing. Deny everything. Make counter-accusations. This has always been Silvio’s approach.
And so too his more fanatical supports. Lawmaker Renato Brunetta, a leading member of his idol’s party Forza Italia, wrote on Twitter “Berlusconi innocent!!!”
Yeah right… We will know the ‘motivations’ of the judgement within 90 days, and the case will now reportedly go to a second and final appeal before Italy’s Corte di Cassazione (Supreme Court), probably in the autumn of next year.
But, according to judge and former senator Domenico Gallo, what we can be clear about already is that the appeal court’s decision does not overturn the facts of the case. Nor does it “absolve Berlusconi from political and moral responsibility for the consequences of his behaviour.”
The ruling does not deny the fact that in the middle of the night of 28 May 2010 he telephoned Pietro Ostumi, chief of staff at the police headquarters in Milan, abusing his position as Italy’s PM, tricking them with the lie that she was the niece of deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarrak in order to obtain the minor’s release. As the state prosecution asserted once again last week, he “ordered” the Ruby’s release thanks to an “implicit threat” against police and judicial officials. Of course, Mr Berlusconi’s defence, the phone calls were “mere requests” to the police.
Nor does the judgement erase the fact that he entrusted the girl, the star of the sleazy nights at his palatial villa outside Milan, to a certain Nicole Minetti, a regional councillor at the centre of a web of prostitution for Silvio’s Bunga Bunga soirees, rather than to a shelter for juvenile offenders (she’d been apprehended for stealing), as required by the probate judge.
Although Berlusconi lied to the Milan police, this wasn’t in itself a criminal act. And this, in large part because of a law change in 2012, pacted between Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party and the Democrats, who were at the time in bed together, supporting technocrat and Bilderberger PM Mario Monti.
Under the Severino law, judges would have to prove that the telephone call directly favoured the then prime minister, and not just young Ruby. Which, surprise, surprise, they couldn’t.
As investigative journalist Peter Gomez notes while the law was being debated in parliament it was already under heavy fire as an abomination. Joining calls for the law to be revisited a year later in the light of numerous resulting legal fiascos, Pietro Grasso, a former anti-mafia judge and today leader of the Senate, specifically pin-pointed Berlusconi’s prostitution case as one of many trials that would “come to nothing,” according to Gomez.
As for the acquittal of the crime of child prostitution, the appeal court probably did not consider proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Berlusconi was aware that the girl was a minor, as Berlusconi’s own defence lawyer suggested to the press. This more stringent requirement is also a result of changes in the law. “Once upon a time he’d be acquitted for lack of evidence, now you acquitted tout court,” argues Mauro Barabaris, a law professor at the University of Trieste.
So where does this leave saintly Silvio?
“If the Court of Appeal acquitted him of criminal responsibility, it certainly does not absolve him of his own behaviour, which must be submitted to the judgment of the public,” says Gallo.
As he was at the time a politician in government he should have exercised his public functions with “discipline and honour”, as article 54 of the Italian Constitution requires. “The judgment of the Court of Milan cancels the offense, but not the dishonour of the disgraceful behaviour by a public official,” Gallo adds.
With big money calling the shots, honour in public office seems as rare as justice in the courts. Especially in Europe’s Banana Republic.
Over the last two decades – a period during which he has dominated Italian politics - Berlusconi has featured in at least 20 major court cases in which he has been accused, but, nearly always not convicted, of corruption, bribery, fraud, false book-keeping, money laundering, tax evasion and other crimes. This, thanks in no small way to dozens of ‘ad personam’ laws and the best lawyers his billions can buy. The only charges that have stuck are for a £300 million tax fraud charge, for which he’s doing a few hours of community service in a facility for Alzheimer’s patients, conveniently located near Milan.
The political repercussions of all this are rosy for Berlusconi. As leader of a major (if no longer the leading) party, he could yet mount a comeback. And Silvio knows he can count on a little help from his friends. In particular, Democrat leader and PM Matteo Renzi, who has publicly shown nothing but the utmost respect for the tax convict (for which Berlusconi’s TV channels and newspapers have amply rewarded Renzi with good press). Most importantly Renzi needs the media mogul’s support to push through his neo-liberal ‘reform’ process.
Berlusconi’s political death certificate has been signed by journalists, political opponents and commentators many times, most recently when he was ousted in 2011 for getting on the wrong side of the ‘markets’, and then when he was booted out of Senate in November, following his definitive tax fraud conviction. It is a fair bet that 77-year old Berlusconi will only really be ‘dead’ when he’s six feet under.
Tom Gill edits Revolting Europe.