Berlusconi trial

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, left, was found guilty of paying Karima el Mahroug, a dancer nicknamed "Ruby the Heart-Stealer," for sex when she was a minor. (AFP/Getty Images / June 24, 2013)

ROME -- Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was found guilty Monday of paying a minor for sex and abuse of power in office. He was sentenced to seven years in jail and banned from public office for life.

After 50 hearings spread over two years, the Italian media mogul and three-time prime minster was found guilty of paying Karima el Mahroug, a Moroccan-born dancer, for sex at his mansion outside Milan in 2010 when she was 17. Paying a minor for sex in Italy is illegal.

Berlusconi was also found guilty of using his position as prime minister to pressure police to release Mahroug into the care of one of his associates when the teenager was arrested on suspicion of theft that year, rather than allowing her to be placed under the supervision of local authorities, as would be more usual.

Despite the prison sentence, Berlusconi, 76, will remain free and be allowed to participate in politics while he appeals the verdict handed down by a panel of judges in Milan. Under Italy’s three-tier legal system, Berlusconi will be able to mount two appeals against the sentence and will not serve any jail time until a final verdict is handed down by Italy’s Supreme Court, which could take years.

Niccolo Ghedini, a lawyer representing Berlusconi, described the sentence, which was a year more than the six years requested by prosecutors, as "hallucinatory."

Mahroug, also known as "Ruby the Heart-Stealer," was an aspiring dancer in Milan when she was first invited to Berlusconi’s so-called "bunga bunga" parties, where some witnesses reported female guests staged stripteases and were fondled by Berlusconi.

A series of aides and associates of Berlusconi denied the reports, telling the court that the parties were well-mannered get-togethers where guests kept their clothes on. In the ruling, the three presiding judges suggested that a number of defense witnesses be investigated for possible false testimony.

Berlusconi had said he would continue to back Italy's fragile coalition government, which contains members of his party, even if he was handed a guilty verdict. However, his growing legal woes may prompt him to pull his supporters out of the government, forcing fresh elections. If he wins, Berlusconi would then be better-placed to introduce legislation that would give him immunity from prosecution.

Later this year, a final ruling from the Italian Supreme Court is expected on a four-year sentence he has already received for tax evasion. He is also under investigation for allegedly bribing a senator to join his party.

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