THE EXOTIC DANCER at the centre of a sex trial against Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi arrived to testify for the first time in court on Monday but a news report said the billionaire’s lawyers may try to suspend the proceedings until after elections.
Moroccan-born Karima El-Mahroug – better known by her nickname as “Ruby the Heart Stealer” – failed to appear the first time she was called to testify and was in Mexico when she was called a second time.
The ANSA news agency said Berlusconi’s lawyers would ask for the entire trial to be suspended until after February elections, as the tycoon bids for a fourth term as prime minister.
The suspension request would concern two other legal proceedings against Berlusconi – a trial for illegally leaking a telephone wiretap and his appeal against a conviction for tax fraud.
Prosecutors have accused the defence of deliberately trying to draw out the sex trial to avoid a verdict before the general election.
Berlusconi has launched his sixth election bid in two decades in politics.
He stands accused of having sex for money with El-Mahroug on several occasions in 2010 when he was still prime minister and she was just 17.
The age of consent in Italy is only 14, but sex with a prostitute who is under 18 years of age is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.
Berlusconi is also accused of abusing his official powers by putting pressure on police to release El-Mahroug from custody when she was arrested for petty theft – a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of 12 years.
His defence says Berlusconi was convinced El-Mahroug was a niece of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident.
The 76-year-old, who is also appealing a one-year prison sentence for tax fraud handed out last year, is unlikely ever to see the inside of a prison cell however since sentencing guidelines in Italy are very lenient for over-70s.
Berlusconi denies having sex with El-Mahroug, saying that he gave her money so that she could set up a beauty parlour and avoid having to prostitute herself.
‘Elegant dinner parties’
“I never had an intimate relationship of any kind with her,” he said in October in his second appearance at the trial which began in April 2011.
“I was sure she was 24, as she herself said,” Berlusconi said.
He said the soirees were “burlesque contests” and “elegant dinner parties.”
According to transcripts of her questioning by investigators leaked in the Italian press, El-Mahroug said Berlusconi enjoyed lap dances from naked girls at parties that he called “Bunga Bunga” – a term that has since become notorious.
El-Mahroug has also denied a liaison with Berlusconi but was recorded in a leaked telephone wiretap telling a friend that he had said to her: “Ruby I’ll give you anything you want, I’ll turn you into gold, just hide everything.”
El-Mahroug is a witness for the defence and is unlikely to give incriminating testimony against Berlusconi, but her comments are eagerly awaited and could help to determine when the trial will end.
Summings up by the prosecution and the defence in the Milan courtroom are expected on January 28 and February 4 but this timetable could change.
Italians take to the polls on February 24-25 and Berlusconi has boosted his ratings since taking to the airwaves in his election campaign.
A conviction just before the elections could put an end to his long political career.
El-Mahroug ran away from her immigrant family in Sicily when she was just 14.
According to some reports she was spotted by one of Berlusconi’s ageing cronies at a beauty contest and was called to entertain the premier.