In what has become an emblematic farce fitting for a bunga-bunga nation, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s underage sex trial again took a turn to the absurd on Monday.
Former erotic pole dancer Karima El Mahroug, a.k.a. “Ruby the Heart Stealer,” arrived in a Milanese courthouse on Monday morning to testify as a defense witness in Berlusconi’s trial. Trailed by a swarm of paparazzi and television crews, she looked nothing like the girl in the now-famous photos, which showed her wearing snug-fitting silky dresses and sipping champagne. Instead, she wore a conservative winter coat and scarf. She is now the mother of a young child and has clearly changed her ways. She had just flown in from North America, where she spent the holidays with her companion’s parents.
When she was last scheduled to testify in the trial last month, El Mahroug had been in Mexico and was fined €500 for failing to appear. But when she finally showed up to testify on Monday, the defense decided they didn’t want to call her after all.
Berlusconi is facing up to 15 years in prison for allegedly paying El Mahroug for sex more than a dozen times when she was just 17 years old, during his third term as prime minister. He is also facing charges for abuse of office for allegedly calling a Milan police station to spring El Mahroug from jail on an unrelated offense. Both Berlusconi and El Mahroug deny having had sex with each other, but there is a pesky detail that keeps the case alive: the elder statesman paid the young dancer $60,000. He admits making the payment, but says it was for hair removal equipment for a beauty salon she wanted to open. Prosecutors in the case argue that it was in exchange for 13 sexual encounters that began when they met on Valentine’s Day 2010. Prostitution in Italy is not illegal, unless it is with an underage minor. El Mahroug denies being a prostitute.
El Mahroug, who was born in Morocco and ran away to Italy to find fame when she was 15, was called by Berlusconi’s legal team as a pivotal witness in the case, which is expected to wrap up with a verdict Feb. 23, the day before Italians head back to the polls. Berlusconi is running as a candidate for the center-right party he created, and the timing of the verdict the day before the vote couldn’t be worse. His lawyers began the hearing on Monday asking that the entire case be put on hold until after the election is over, citing campaigning for reelection as a legitimate impediment that could prohibit him from attending the trial. The prosecutor lda Boccassini argued that “a trial cannot be suspended for a general-election campaign.” The three-judge panel (which happens to be all-female) agreed after deliberating for nearly four hours.
After the lengthy wait, El Mahroug should have then been called to the stand. She was expected to tell the judges that she had never had sex with the former prime minister. But Berlusconi’s defense team made a snap decision and announced that they didn’t want to call the young former dancer after all. “Her initial deposition is sufficient for our interests,” Berlusconi’s lawyer Niccolo Ghedini told the court. He told reporters outside the court that the defense team feared that anything she said would be manipulated and used against their client in the electoral campaign.
Outside the court, El Mahroug’s lawyer Paola Boccardi told reporters that her client “wasn’t angry” but instead “surprised and disappointed” because she wanted to finally be heard. The next audience is set for Jan. 28, when the defense will wrap up its case. Now with one less witness to be heard and no legal reason to delay the trial, it should wrap up as scheduled—just in time for the election.