Of course, at this point Berlusconi won't have to worry about going to prison. In Italy, convicted criminals who are over 70 are not required to serve time. Besides, today's judgment was handed down by a trial court and is not legally binding if an appeal is filed, which Berlusconi's chief attorney promptly announced he intended to do. This means that the case would go to two other courts before a final verdict is issued. And by the time those courts have ruled, a guilty verdict will have no direct consequences.
However, the media czar and three-time prime minister is likely to be more concerned about another verdict that could be issued by this fall, by a court of last resort, in a case involving tax fraud with his company, Mediaset. In that case, Berlusconi could face a mandatory prison term, as in today's Ruby judgment, but also a fatal "secondary penalty," provided the court of cassation upholds the lower-court verdicts: exclusion from all public offices, or a de facto ban on engaging in political activity.
That is Berlusconi's worst-case scenario. The disgrace would be painful enough, spelling the humiliating end of what he sees as a glorious career. But a forced departure from the political stage would also make him powerless against, and therefore vulnerable to legal investigations by the courts, which, as he argues, are misusing the law as a "weapon of political combat."
Berlusconi's version sounds almost touching. He was having dinner with a dozen young women at his villa in Arcore, near Milan, listening to one of them tell the "painful story" of her young life. "I was moved," says "Papi" Berlusconi, as the girls call him. He claims that he gave poor little "Ruby" money so that she would no longer have to prostitute herself -- several tens of thousands of euros for a beauty salon. Was there sex involved? "No, never," Berlusconi claims, and "Ruby" confirms his story.
There are also versions of the second part of the story. When Ruby was arrested on theft charges on May 27, 2010, about three months after her debut in Arcore, the benevolent "Papi" came to her aid once again. This time it was for the good of Italy. Although he was on a state visit in France, he called the chief of staff of the Milan police chief, who was already in bed, at 11 p.m. "The prime minister told," the chief of staff later told investigators, "that we had a girl from North Africa in our custody who was Mubarak's granddaughter, and that a member of parliament, Ms. Minetti, would take care of her."
Berlusconi said that he had stepped in because he had truly believed, at the time, that Ruby was the granddaughter of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "I asked for information, because I was worried about a situation that could have led to a diplomatic affair," he claimed. But the court disagreed, saying that he had in fact had the girl taken out of police custody so that she would not reveal anything about his "Bunga Bunga" experiences to the Milan officers.
The politician accused the three Milan judges of persecuting him. "I intend to oppose this persecution, because I am absolutely innocent, and I do not intend to give up my fight to make Italy a truly free and just country."
A ban on holding public office by the court of cassation would have to be confirmed by the Senate -- the second chamber of the Italian parliament, in which Berlusconi has a seat -- in a secret vote. This would office a good opportunity for a sufficient number of leftist senators to anonymously vote "no," thereby saving Berlusconi, as the former prime minister's emissaries have intimated to the coalition partners. Otherwise Berlusconi's party would bring down the coalition government, so that new elections would be necessary.
Although many Italians may still find Berlusconi's "Bunga Bunga" parties amusing, they are more likely to find his dealings with underage prostitutes disgusting or even criminal, and some could very well turn their backs on their hero. Berlusconi's most loyal followers, women, could be especially repelled by the Ruby affair. But if Berlusconi's election prospects decline, his threat of new elections will come to nothing.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo-Credit: AFP: Sylvio Berlusconi