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Silvio Berlusconi verdict sends shockwaves

Silvio Berlusconi. File photo Image copyright AP
Image caption Silvio Berlusconi also faces another - more serious - court case

Silvio Berlusconi's lawyers were known to be braced for defeat in the closing stages of the scandalous "Ruby" sex trial, and they needed to be.

In this case that laid bare the former prime minister's so called "bunga-bunga" party lifestyle, the judges delivered a crushing verdict.

Mr Berlusconi was convicted on both the charges he faced, sentenced to seven years in jail and banned from holding public office ever again.

The judges decided that he did indeed pay for sex with underage prostitute Karima El Mahroug, better known by her nightclub dancer stage name "Ruby the Heartstealer".

The court had heard that he slept with her on 13 occasions at a time when he was still Italy's prime minister.

Ms El Mahroug, however, says she has never been a prostitute. And both she and Mr Berlusconi denied they had ever had sex.

The judges also decided that the former prime minister had abused the powers of his office; that he pressured the police into freeing Ms El Mahroug when she was in custody.

'Elegant' parties

Image copyright AP
Image caption Karima El Mahroug denies ever having sex with Mr Berlusconi

The court had heard that Mr Berlusconi had met the dancer when she attended one of his party nights.

These were occasions when aspiring showgirls and models would mix with him and his influential entourage.

Prosecution witnesses talked of raunchy, sexually-charged cavorting.

There were accounts of women dressed as nuns stripping to their underwear for the entertainment of the then prime minister.

Mr Berlusconi has always denied that anything sleazy ever went on at what he has called his "elegant" dinner parties.

And he was furious at the judgement.

"It is not only bad justice, it is an offence to all Italians who have believed in me and trusted in my commitment to the country," he wrote in a statement.

He has always argued that he is being hounded by politically motivated left-wing prosecutors in Milan.

And he said this verdict had been an effort to eliminate him from political life.

Divided opinion

Many of the millions of Italians who vote for Mr Berlusconi will agree.

Among them is a friend of the former prime minister, Diego Volpe Pasini, who used to go to the "bunga-bunga" parties.

"The Ruby case is extraordinary," he said, in the days before the verdict.

"It's a nonsense. How can you be convicted if you can't see a victim? Ruby's not a victim," he said, referring to Ms El Mahroug's denials that she ever had sex with Mr Berlusconi.

Mr Volpe Pasini said that at his parties Mr Berlusconi would sing and tell jokes.

He added that - although showgirls might have tried to impress the media magnate prime minister with dance routines - nothing morally questionable happened.

But many of those Italians who loathe Mr Berlusconi and everything he stands for will believe he is guilty as charged.

And this very high-profile case has probably damaged Mr Berlusconi more than most of his many courtroom dramas.

"Some of the information that's been emerging has been a bit excessive from the point of view of moral behaviour and private behaviour," Professor Franco Pavoncello of John Cabot University in Rome.

"I think that people are a bit disturbed by the kind of images that started to appear from those evenings in Mr Berlusconi's villa."

Bigger threat

But Mr Berlusconi has ridden out countless scandals and legal storms that would have sunk almost any other political career, and he will certainly survive "the Ruby case".

This judgement will have no immediate, practical impact. It was only the verdict of a lower court. Appeals against it could go on for years.

Even if the sentence was eventually confirmed, a man of Mr Berlusconi's age would be extremely unlikely to go to prison for crimes like these in Italy.

Much more serious for the former PM is another case that is fast reaching a conclusion.

This is an affair in which Mr Berlusconi has been convicted of tax evasion.

And if he cannot get the sentence overturned at a final appeal hearing he will be barred from holding any public office as soon as this autumn.

He would see this as intolerable victory for those left-wing prosecutors who, he says, have schemed against him.

And there is intense speculation as to how Mr Berlusconi will manoeuvre to counter the looming threat.

The tensions surrounding this legal battle are already feeding into the political arena.

The veteran Berlusconi-watcher, Professor James Walston, of the American University of Rome wrote in his blog: "If they uphold his conviction... with its bar on his holding public office, then we will see Silvio Berlusconi slip from the statesman role to the rabble-rousing populist with uncertain and dangerous possibilities."

It is even possible to envisage a scenario in which the ructions might eventually bring down Italy's coalition government, of which the former prime minister's faction is a major part.

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