Berlusconi 'witness tampering' inquiry in Ruby trial

Karima El Mahroug, April 2013 Karima El Mahroug says she never had sexual relations with Berlusconi

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is to be investigated for alleged witness-tampering in an underage prostitution trial.

He and his lawyers are accused of meeting the female witnesses to discuss the evidence they would give.

Berlusconi was convicted last year of paying for sex with an underage prostitute Karima El Mahroug, also known as "Ruby the Heart Stealer".

It is the latest in a string of legal cases hanging over Berlusconi.

Forty-five people are under investigation in this latest case, according to Milan judicial officials, including Ms El Mahroug and senior members of Berlusconi's legal team, Niccolo Ghedini and Piero Longo.

Also being investigated are other young women who attended so-called "bunga bunga" erotic parties at Berlusconi's villa near Milan.

Niccolo Ghedini (r) and Pietro Longo, Berlusconi lawyers, November 2013 Lawyers Niccolo Ghedini (r) and Piero Longo are among those being investigated

He is alleged to have paid monthly sums to them to testify that the gatherings were innocent dinners rather than erotic parties.

'Innocent'

Berlusconi, in a statement released on Thursday, again asserted his innocence and accused the judiciary of victimising him.

He remained "more convinced than ever of the need to keep fighting to the end for what I profoundly believe in".

Berlusconi timeline

  • 1994: Wins first election with Forza Italia
  • 2001: Re-elected as PM
  • 2006: Loses election. Romano Prodi coalition rules
  • 2008: Wins third election victory
  • 2009: Wife files for divorce. Series of sex scandal claims begins
  • 2011: Steps down amid economic and political turmoil
  • 2013: Convicted of paying for sex with under-age prostitute and abuse of power. Loses appeal on tax fraud. Expelled from Senate
  • 2014: Investigation opens into witness-tampering

The former prime minister was sentenced to seven years in custody last July for paying for sex with a prostitute aged under 18 and abuse of office. The court found he had used his influence to release Ms El Mahroug from police custody.

He remains free while appealing against the verdict.

A former nightclub dancer, Ms El Mahroug has always denied having sexual relations with Berlusconi.

The leader of Italy's centre-right Forza Italia party suffered another setback last year when he was expelled from the Senate after a conviction for tax fraud was upheld. He also lost his immunity from prosecution.

Though he was given a four-year jail term, reduced to one, he is not expected to go to prison because of his age - 77. But he may have to do a year's community service.

Berlusconi has said he fears he will end up "cleaning loos".

But at this moment things are not so bad for him, reports the BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome. He's relaxing at a health farm on Lake Garda, along with his young fiancee and their pet dog.

At the weekend, Berlusconi appeared to have returned to the political mainstream, sealing a deal with his centre-left rivals in the governing Democratic Party (PD). Under the agreement, Forza Italia, the largest opposition bloc, will back electoral and constitutional changes.

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