An Italian court has acquitted Silvio Berlusconi over allegations of bribing witnesses in an underage prostitution case that has dogged the former prime minister for more than a decade.
The 86-year-old billionaire was accused of paying 28 people, mostly young guests at his notoriously hedonistic soirees, known as Bunga Bunga parties, to provide false testimony in a previous trial where he was charged with paying for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan nightclub dancer.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
In a written summary of the ruling on Wednesday, the Milan court said that those who gave evidence in the original case should have been classified as suspects and not as witnesses, meaning the latest charges did not apply.
Prosecutors had demanded a six-year prison term for Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party is a key component of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s conservative coalition.
In her closing arguments in May, prosecutor Tiziana Siciliano had described the former prime minister as “a sultan” who used to “liven up his evenings with a group of concubines, in the sense of sex slaves, who entertained him for a fee”.
While some of the women involved have said nothing untoward happened in Berlusconi’s Arcore villa near Milan, which has a private nightclub, others have described orgies and female guests dressing up as nuns to perform erotic dances.
Berlusconi had denied the allegations and said he is the victim of a long-running plot by magistrates to hound him from politics.
“I can only express our utmost satisfaction for this unequivocal acquittal,” said Berlusconi’s lawyer Federico Cecconi.
Meloni welcomed the decision
“The acquittal of Silvio Berlusconi is excellent news that puts an end to a long legal case that also had important repercussions on Italian political and institutional life,” she said in a statement.
The other 28 people, including the woman at the centre of the scandal, Karima el-Mahroug, were also all found not guilty on Wednesday.
“I am very happy,” el-Mahroug told reporters after hearing the verdict. “It overwhelmed me when I was 17 and it carried on until I was 30. It was a nightmare. I just need a moment to assimilate this fact, to believe it.”
Berlusconi and el-Mahroug denied ever having sex with each other, and el-Mahroug, whose stage name was Ruby the Heartstealer, has said she never worked as a prostitute.
Berlusconi has acknowledged giving money to various of his guests, but said it was offered spontaneously as compensation for the reputational damage they had suffered by being associated with his infamous parties.
The earlier trials took place as Berlusconi still wielded considerable power as prime minister, raising concern among security officials that he had left himself vulnerable to extortion by hosting young women at his villa.
The three-time former president of the Council of Ministers is currently head of the third party in Italy’s right-wing governing coalition, whose popularity has shrunk significantly from its heyday to about 6 percent now, according to polls.
Ever since he entered politics in 1994, Berlusconi’s career has been marked by legal battles and he was temporarily banned from political office after a conviction for tax fraud in 2013. That ban has long expired and he returned to the Senate in 2022 national elections.