Nicholas Farrell

In defence of Silvio Berlusconi

The Bunga Bunga trial has shown that something is irredeemably rotten in Italy – but it isn’t the former prime minister

In defence of Silvio Berlusconi
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Ah Italia! Such a great place to get your head round great art and great women but what a crappy little country. How else can you describe a place that condemns a 76-year-old man to seven years in jail and bans him for life from public office for a crime that both he and his victim deny — a crime to which there were no witnesses and for which there is no evidence?

That is what has just happened in Milan in the infamous Bunga Bunga trial at which three women judges (and no jury) found the media tycoon and three times prime minister guilty on Monday of ‘prostituzione minorile’ (Berlusconi of course is appealing).

According to the prosecution, Silvio Berlusconi — known as ‘Il Cavaliere’, the knight — paid Karima El-Mahroug — known as ‘Ruby Rubacuori’, Ruby the Heart-Stealer — for sex during a four-month period at the start of 2010, when he was prime minister and she was 17. In the land of the Latin lover, the age of consent is 14 but it is illegal to pay a girl for sex until she is 18.

Yes, Berlusconi paid Ruby money (she was present 13 times at his infamous parties and received €3,000 a time). He pays dozens of women money. So what? Is that proof of prostituting a minor? About 30 young women who were also paid regularly by Berlusconi to grace the parties at his villa outside Milan appeared as witnesses in the two-year trial to say that they had never seen any sex at those parties or him having sex with anyone, let alone the nubile Moroccan.

Perhaps it is also worth bearing in mind that at the time he was 74 and, even though an Italian, a prostate-cancer survivor. Even though the media joked about him being equipped with the ‘pillola blu’ (blue pill), the ‘pompa’ (pump), the ‘puntura’ (injection) and the ‘piccola gru’ (small crane), was he even capable of full-on sex?

Those 30 or so women now face trial as well. For perjury. As Alessandro Sallusti, the editor of Berlusconi’s daily Il Giornale, said on Tuesday, it’s ‘reminiscent, very reminiscent, of those emitted by Stalinist and Nazi tribunals against their adversaries: any witness who dared to raise a finger in defence of the poor defendant of the day in turn was charged with being a worm, condemned as an accomplice and a liar, punished and re-educated. Permit me to say that if I had even the slightest suspicion that il Presidente had molested a woman even once in his life I wouldn’t be here writing these words. We are talking about a gentleman, a bit of a buffoon, but with far more moral integrity than his accusers and judges.’

Let’s not beat about the bush. The moral side of Berlusconi’s private life is irrelevant — from a legal point of view. You can argue that a prime minister and a man of his age should not hold regular parties surrounded by shoals of scantily clad women who are young enough to be his granddaughters and are paid to be there. But to hold such parties and to pay such women is not a crime.

I gave up social life years ago. But the powers of Italy’s prosecuting judges petrify me: our tabloid judges are far worse and far more scary than Britain’s tabloid journalists. One lives in daily fear of the knock on the door, because Italy’s terrifying bureaucracy and labyrinthine laws mean that we are all guilty of something — and even if we are not it does not matter.

These judges can spy on your telephone calls arbitrarily (in Bunga Bunga trials one and two they intercepted 100,000 calls) and lock you up for months without charging you while they seek evidence against you for a trial that usually never happens. If there’s never a trial, it does not matter because your reputation and life will be destroyed by the so-called investigation. And if it does happen, it’ll never end, because — hey — this is Italy and there are three trials anyway before a conviction becomes definitive. The point of Italy’s judicial system is not to destroy people by means of jail but to destroy them without the need for jail.

In Anglo-Saxon countries the concept of innocence until proven guilty is still just about sacred (though being steadily eroded by contamination from the European Union). In Italy, on the other hand, you are, in reality, guilty until proven innocent. Sure, Italian lawyers and judges pay high-minded lip-service to the requirement of proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt, but in practice, as we see each time there is a high-profile trial in Italy, another principle in fact rules the roost: he must have done it.

What of the evidence, then, in the Bunga Bunga trial? There was none. Not what would be called evidence in a British court, at any rate. The closest thing I have seen was the testimony of one of the 24 girls. Ruby called her one night from her mobile telephone from a Berlusconi party to say that she was going to have sex with him that night. She told prosecutors that it was a joke. But, anyway, isn’t that what in Britain is called hearsay evidence and therefore inadmissible?

Italy’s judges are not like Britain’s judges. They are a profession quite separate from solicitors and barristers, and like every organisation in Italy, including the Round Table, are highly politicised. The Procura di Milano teems with left-wing ones. Ever since Berlusconi entered politics in 1994 to stop the otherwise inevitable victory at the elections of the post-communist party (Italy had the largest communist party outside the Soviet bloc before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989), the Milanese judges have hounded him with a hysterical fanaticism that can only be described as personal.

I used to think that freedom-loving, free-market Italians such as Berlusconi formed the country’s silent majority. Nowadays, to judge from Italy’s judges — and the lack of outrage here about what they get up to — I am convinced that such free spirits form a doomed minority.