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Berlusconi and the bunga bunga trial

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Robin Lustig | 09:31 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Even if you speak not a word of Italian, there are now two words that you should probably learn.

The first is "vergogna" - it means shame, and I'll explain why it matters in a moment.

The second is "bunga bunga", which wasn't a word until a few weeks ago, and which means, well, no one is sure yet exactly what it means.

It might mean having sex - as in what the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is alleged to have done with a variety of young women at private parties in his villa outside Milan - or it might mean sex games, as in pole dancing, striptease, prancing around with no clothes on, as in what young women are alleged to have done ... (see above).

It comes as no surprise that sex and politics make a potent mix. (Remember Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?) But the trial of the Italian prime minister which is due to start in April promises to be every bit as lurid as the Clinton-Lewinsky saga in the mid-1990s.

I'm in Italy this week, and many Italians use that word "vergogna" to describe their feelings about the Berlusconi bunga bunga scandal. Mr Berlusconi uses the same word to describe what he insists is a politically-motivated criminal investigation by left-wing prosecutors who are determined to bring him down.

So here's what you need to know to make sense of the forthcoming trial. The case for the prosecution is based on intercepted telephone conversations and mobile phone records involving several friends and associates of the prime minister in which they apparently confirm that he was involved in numerous sexual encounters with young women, at least some of whom he paid. (Note, however, that paying to have sex with a prostitute is not a crime in Italy. Note also that the prime minister denies that he has ever paid for sex.)

Prosecutors say that one of these women, a nightclub dancer called Karima el Mahroug (stagename Ruby Rubacuore, or Ruby the Heartstealer), originally from Morocco, was only 17 at the time of their sexual encounters. (The age of consent in Italy is 14, except in the case of prostitutes, for whom it is 18. Note, however, that Mr Berlusconi's lawyers are challenging her exact age, and that both he and she deny that they had sex. She does say that he paid her 7,000 euros because she was in financial difficulties.)

Prosecutors also say that when police arrested Karima el Mahroug on an unrelated theft charge, the prime minister personally telephoned them to seek her release, on the grounds that she was either a niece or a grand-daughter of the then Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.

(Why the confusion over the exact relationship that he claimed for her? Because the Italian word "nipote" can mean either niece/nephew or grand-daughter/grandson. Sorry, but nothing about this saga is simple.)

Mr Berlusconi agrees that he made the call, but argues that he genuinely believed that she was a relative of President Mubarak's, and was anxious to prevent a diplomatic incident. Prosecutors say the call was an abuse of office, and have charged him accordingly.

So where does all this leave the prime minister, and where does it leave Italy? On the political front, it seems now almost certain that within the coming weeks, Mr Berlusconi will decide to ask President Giorgio Napolitano to dissolve parliament and call early elections. And if he does, it is quite possible that he will win, because despite everything, he retains substantial support among voters.

If that surprises you, consider this: according to a psychologist I interviewed this week, Italians like being ruled by a "tribal chief", someone with wealth and virility, who looks strong and determined. To his supporters, that just about sums up Silvio Berlusconi.

In the meantime, you'll be hearing both sides repeatedly using that word "vergogna" - shame.

I'll be on air from Italy tonight, and again tomorrow and Friday. And you'll be delighted to know that you can now download The World Tonight as a podcast, so that if you miss it in the evening, you can catch up on your way to work the following morning.


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