“Rubygate” and the future of the “Silvio system” in Italian politics.

In this blog entry, John Agnew, co-author of Berlusconi’s Italy, reflects on the downfall of Italy’s former Prime Minister and media mogul.

Sentenced to seven years in prison and permanent exclusion from public office. The sentence will be appealed. Apart from its severity, this sentence handed down by a Milan court in what has been widely advertised as a simple case of an elderly man procuring an underage prostitute (“Ruby Heartstealer” or Karima El Mahroug) for parties at his sumptuous villa, was not that surprising to those tuned in to the court’s proceedings over the past two years or so. The defense didn’t go too well. Recorded telephone conversations contradicted what seemed increasingly like suborned testimony by all too many witnesses. That the man in question is Silvio Berlusconi, who at the time the charges were lodged was Italian Prime Minister and who has been central to Italian society and politics as boss of the main private TV networks and leader of his own center-right political party (now named the Partito dell Liberta’) for the past generation, has been used by him and his entourage as the political exploitation by leftist prosecutors of a personal proclivity to impress others with his ability to entertain on a lavish scale. Seen in this light, why can’t the prosecutors leave him alone? What harm was done? Anyway, the parties were “elegant dinners,” whatever some people might say about prostitutes dressed up as nuns. Even if she were a prostitute, Ruby and her consorts were well paid? How could Mr. Berlusconi have known that Ruby was seventeen and thus underage? This is how the tabloid magazines and newspapers such as Libero and Giornale (many owned by the self-same Mr. Berlusconi) and his PR representatives have variously spun the story.

Berlusconis_ItalyYet, this intensely personalized account of both the case and the man misses the most important aspects of the entire Rubygate affair, as it has been dubbed in the Italian media, after the “party name” of the then-teenaged prostitute added to the scandal signifying suffix “gate” from the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.  This is that there were three charges in the case and only one relates to the employment of an underage prostitute. The other two involve serious abuse of office. They relate directly to how Silvio Berlusconi has used his office of Prime Minister since entered national politics in 1994 as a “system” of rule.  One is that Berlusconi has bought off witnesses involved in what was in fact a system for providing prostitutes to his parties at Arcore outside of Milan. Ruby herself has been one of these. This is clear from the recantation of testimony and the appearance of large sums of money in her bank account “donated” by Berlusconi. The police have shown through tapped telephone conversations and bank records the extent to which Berlusconi has tried to put himself above the law by essentially suborning perjury. Of course, while in office he has also expended much of his political energy trying to arrange special legal status for himself (so-called laws ad personam) in the face of the fraud and conflict of interest charges he has faced in numerous civil court cases. It will be interesting to see if charges are now brought against key witnesses in the Ruby case, such as Nicole Minetti, Emilio Fede, Maria Rosaria Rossi, and others all obviously involved in procuring prostitutes for Berlusconi and his guests. The other charge relates to a telephone call Berlusconi made to police HQ in Milan on the night of 27-18 March 2010 from Paris where he was at an international meeting representing Italy. This was directed at releasing Ruby from police custody where she was as the result of arrest for theft from a “roommate.” Claiming that Ruby was the niece of then-President Mubarak of Egypt, Berlusconi asked that Ruby be released on the personal recognizance of Nicole Minetti, his local representative (also his personal dental hygienist and regional councilor for Lombardy – – you can’t make this up). Ruby then repaired to the house of a Brazilian prostitute and not into the custody of the community she had previously been assigned to by the juvenile court in her hometown of Messina, Sicily. Berlusconi’s intervention, interpreted by his defense as an act of kindness and “institutional responsibility”  (although apparently no other person has had such personal intervention with the police from the head of government), led to a charge of extortion through abuse of office by prosecutors. In other words, Berlusconi was held to have used his official position to request a special favor. In November 2012 Italian law changed in regard of such extortion (concussione in Italian) to distinguish extortion through coercion from extortion by induction and impose a more severe penalty in the case of the former.   In this perspective, Berlusconi was held guilty by the court of using his authority as head of government to coerce a police official into releasing Ruby. Concussione per costrizione or extortion by coercion is subject to more severe penalty under the new law than extortion by induction (inference). So, because the court interpreted his intervention as coercive according to the new law, Berlusconi’s sentence was increased to seven years from the six originally sought by prosecutors.

So, this trial has been about much more than buying the services of a juvenile prostitute for jolly parties or elegant dinners.  It has been about a system of power institutionalized in Italy under Berlusconi. While the case is appealed, Berlusconi remains the boss of his own political party and dominates Italian private television. His party is in grand coalition with the center-left Partito Democratico from whose ranks comes the current Prime Minister, Enrico Letta.  This government of larghe intese (“wide agreement”) was formed with great difficulty after the indeterminate national election of last February 2013 in which both of the major political groupings lost votes to abstention and to the new internet-based Movimento 5 Stelle. How can the judgment of he court remain extraneous to this governing arrangement when it reveals a corrupt and decadent system of fixing things for those who can afford to do so? Will Berlusconi hold this government hostage to his demands for judicial “reform” (essentially letting him off the hook), while the center-left sees itself as trying to honestly deal with Italy’s business at a time of severe economic crisis? Who will finally call Berlusconi to political account for the travesty of rule, pursuing public office in pursuit of private interests, he has inflicted on Italy over the years? A time for reckoning: but who will have the guts to call him out?

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