STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi went on trial today in Milan. He is not charged with tax fraud or corruption, as in his other pending court cases, but for paying for sex with a minor and abuse of office. Neither the 74-year-old prime minister nor the young woman involved showed up in court today, and the judge ruled it an unexcused absence. The trial resumes at the end of May.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on the trial known as Rubygate.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: It's a cast of characters made in screenwriters' heaven: defendant Berlusconi the hyperkinetic millionaire-media-mogul-turned politician - prosecutor Ilda Boccassini - a fearless, red-headed, anti-corruption and anti-mafia magistrate - and the victim, Karima el Marough, aka Ruby Heartstealer - the stunning, six-foot-tall Moroccan-born pole dancer who's become an instant celebrity.
The supporting players are some three dozen would-be starlets and call girls, and a witness list that includes government ministers, soccer players and even George Clooney.
The prosecution claims Berlusconi hosted orgies and erotic dances, dubbed bunga-bunga, and had sex with the then-under-age el Marough in exchange for large sums of money.
But Berlusconi insists all his dinner parties are elegant and sober affairs, and denounces the charges as part of a communist conspiracy.
Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through translator) I am the man most persecuted by magistrates in the history of mankind, throughout the world. I've been subjected to more than 2,500 hearings.
POGGIOLI: Berlusconi has undergone a dozen-odd trials and was mostly acquitted, either thanks to the statute of limitations or changes in the law. In fact, prosecutor Ilda Boccassini the highly respected Iron Lady of the Italian judiciary - failed to win a conviction against him after false accounting was decriminalized. This is how she described Berlusconi in her closing arguments.
Ms. ILDA BOCCASSINI (Attorney): (Through translator) He is a person who lies to the Italian people. We've been able to prove that all the statements given by Silvio Berlusconi were not true.
POGGIOLI: Berlusconi is also accused of abusing his office when he called Milan police headquarters to get el Marough released after she was detained on suspicion of robbery. Berlusconi says he believed she was the granddaughter of the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and that's what he told police.
The trial's star is the young Moroccan woman who shot to fame after a life of hardship. The daughter of poor Moroccan immigrants, el Marough rebelled at 13 when her father reportedly tried to marry her to an older man. Smart and ambitious, she ran away from home.
At 17, she ended up in Milan after catching the eye of a talent scout at a beauty contest, and she started working as a belly dancer at nightclubs. Shortly later, el Marough attended her first party at Berlusconi's villa. According to prosecutors, she has given conflicting versions of events. In a tearful interview on a Berlusconi-owned TV network, she denied having sex with the premier.
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Ms. KARIMA EL MAROUGH (Dancer): (Through translator) He didn't put a finger on me. Why do people have to see bad things when there's nothing bad? After all my bosses put their hands all over me, I finally meet a man who gives me 7,000 euros and doesn't touch me.
POGGIOLI: But transcripts of her phone conversations describe a very different story. Berlusconi's lawyers may be aware they cannot depend on el Marough's testimony to clear their client. The prime ministers' supporters in parliament passed a motion challenging the Milan magistrates' right even to press these charges against Berlusconi.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Milan.
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