Italy’s Berlusconi vows to `resist’ after conviction at sex-for-pay trial

MILAN — Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi vowed to fight for his political survival on Monday after a court in Milan sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment for soliciting sex from a minor and abusing his position to cover up the affair.

The sentence handed down by judges in the so-called “bunga bunga” trial was one year longer than what had been sought by the prosecution. The sentence also included a lifetime ban on holding public office.

Berlusconi rejected what he called an “incredible” ruling as “an attempt to eliminate me from political life.”

But he vowed to “resist against this persecution because I am absolutely innocent and in no way do I want to abandon my struggle to make Italy a truly free and just country.”

The conviction will not be enforced until appeal proceedings are exhausted — a process that could take years — and could be quashed if the statute of limitations expires beforehand.

Berlusconi’s lawyer Nicolo Ghedini, who is also a member of his conservative People of Freedom, or PDL, party, said the verdict was “very much expected,” hinting at the Milan court’s alleged bias against the politician. He said the verdict would be appealed.

Fabrizio Cicchitto, a senior PDL figure, said judges had “criminalized not just Berlusconi, but also the 9 million Italians who had voted for him” in February elections.

The three-time premier is a key backer of the grand coalition government led by Prime Minister Enrico Letta. Cicchitto said the PDL would continue supporting the government, despite its anger at the ruling.

The center-left Democratic Party, the other key member of the coalition, simply “took notice” and said it respected “the decisions that the judiciary takes autonomously, whatever they may be.”

Nicola Morra from the Five Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo said the opposition group would insist on holding a vote in the Senate to declare Berlusconi unfit for parliament, because of conflict of interest stemming from his business holdings.

The media mogul was convicted for paying for sex in 2010 with Karima El Mahroug, a Moroccan nightclub dancer whose stage name is Ruby the Heart Stealer. She was 17 years old at the time, and he was prime minister.

While prostitution is legal in Italy, soliciting sex from those under 18 is a crime.

Berlusconi, 76, was also found guilty of pressuring Milan police to release El Mahroug from custody after she was held on suspicion of theft. He reportedly told officers she was the niece of then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Neither Berlusconi nor El Mahroug was present as the verdict was read out.

In a trial that lasted over two years, an all-female court heard that Berlusconi would hold night-time parties where women performed lap dance routines in a special “bunga bunga” room, dressed up as nuns, nurses or public figures such as President Barack Obama.

Berlusconi has always maintained his innocence. In summing up for the defense, lawyers stressed that El Mahroug had denied having had sex with the former premier, while police officers dismissed claims that they were unduly pressured.

The court asked prosecutors to investigate them and other defense witnesses — including showgirls who admitted to receiving regular cash payments from Berlusconi and deputy foreign minister Bruno Archi — for giving false testimonies.

The prosecution’s case rested on wiretapped conversations, statements made by El Mahroug under interrogation — which she later disowned — testimonies from other women and from a juvenile judge who did not want police to release the dancer.

Berlusconi has other legal troubles, including a final appeal ruling expected by the end of the year on a tax fraud case that could force him to step down from parliament.

A judge also is expected to decide Thursday whether he should face trial on charges of bribing an opposition lawmaker. On the same day, Italy’s top appeals court is to consider whether his firm Mediaset should pay a hefty compensation bill to a business rival.