AN APPEAL court has acquitted former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in a sex-for-hire case, reversing a lower court conviction that had carried a seven-year prison sentence and a lifetime ban on holding political office.
The case offered an unseemly glimpse into the 77-year-old three-time prime minster’s private life, with witnesses claiming that raunchy sex parties at his private villa – which became known as “bunga-bunga” parties – were attended by aspiring showgirls.
The prosecution alleged that Berlusconi had paid for sex with an underage prostitute, a Moroccan named Karima el-Mahroug – better known as Ruby the Heart Stealer – and then used his influence to cover it up.
He denied the charges and both he and el-Mahroug, who was 17 when she frequented Berlusconi’s villa, denied ever having had sex.
The acquittal was announced yesterday just as Berlusconi was leaving a facility for Alzheimer’s patients near Milan where he is performing community service for a separate conviction on a tax fraud charge.
That is the only case finalised against Berlusconi, who has faced dozens of trials, mostly for his business dealings.
The media mogul waved to supporters as he was driven away.
Berlusconi’s defence lawyer, Franco Coppi, said the decision “goes beyond the rosiest predictions,” adding that he would have been satisfied with an acquittal for lack of evidence.
But the court went further, saying that no crimes had been committed.
While the court has 90 days to issue its reasoning, Mr Coppi said the decision to acquit for paying an underage prostitute for sex could have been due to Berlusconi’s testimony that he believed el-Mahroug was over 18.
The former prime minister, who is still the most influential politician on the centre right in Italian politics, had always denied the charges, accusing the Milan magistrates of hounding him for political reasons.
“Finally justice has been done,” said Simone Furlan, of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.
“Now, let’s all focus on good politics to relaunch Forza Italia, tightly knit around our great leader Silvio Berlusconi.”
The verdict was widely approved by Berlusconi’s political backers.
One of the staunchest, politician Renato Brunetta, exclaimed ‘Berlusconi innocent!!!” on Twitter.
Yesterday’s verdict in the most sensational trial faced by Berlusconi is not definitive as prosecutors could lodge an appeal with Italy’s top court.
The final ruling in the so-called Ruby trial could have implications for Berlusconi and his freedom to engage in political activity beyond the case itself.
As well as its implications for Berlusconi, the verdict removes a potential threat to prime minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform drive, which depends on an accord with the centre-right.
That accord could have been threatened had Berlusconi’s conviction been upheld.
Berlusconi received a definitive conviction for tax fraud last year and was stripped of his seat in parliament.
He was given a four-year jail sentence, but that was commuted to a year’s community service under a general amnesty, leaving him largely free to campaign in elections and play a political role.
However, a second definitive conviction in a criminal trial would violate the terms of the amnesty.
That could mean that Berlusconi would have to serve time under house arrest.