Berlusconi Now Vulnerable to Criminal Prosecution

PHOTO: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends a meeting and press conference with Deputy chairman of the National Transitional Council Executive Board Mahmoud Jibril at the Prefecture Palace, Milan, Italy Aug. 25, 2011.
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Now that he is out of office former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi faces a barrage of prosecutions that he had been able to keep at bay, but now threaten to lead to a criminal conviction.

Berlusconi, 75, faces about 40 court hearings through May 2012.

He is a defendant in four ongoing criminal trials, accused of underage sex, abuse of power, bribery and embezzlement.

Analysts say Berlusconi lost more than Italy's highest office when he resigned Saturday.

"The long and the short of it is, it's quite bad news for him personally," says Dr. Jonathan Hopkins of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

As prime minister, Berlusconi appointed the minister of justice who had leverage over judges. Twice, he pushed through laws granting immunity to sitting prime ministers and other cabinet officers. Both laws were overturned, but Berlusconi managed to make other legal maneuvers stick.

"Over the years he introduced legislative changes to make it easier to delay judicial proceedings....He put sand in the wheels of the judicial system," Hopkins said, then waited out the statute of limitations.

Berlusconi is charged with bribery in one of the four criminal cases he faces. A verdict is expected before April of next year when the statute of limitations for the crime runs out.

"There's not enough time left for appeals," says journalist Carlo Bonini of the Italian newspaper La Republica. Bonini has closely followed Berlusconi's trials, and says the former Italian leader may have succeeded in delaying two other cases involving fraud and embezzlement long enough to avoid convictions in those cases as well.

Then there's Rubygate.

"Rubygate is probably the worst trial he has because there is no way to slow down the process and the crime is a serious crime," Bonini said.

The case involves Moroccan stripper Karmina El Mahroug, known as Ruby Heartstealer. Prosecutors allege Berlusconi had sex with Mahroug when she was 17 and later called a jail to get her released on an unrelated theft charge to keep her from going public. The underage sex and abuse of power charges carry a combined sentence of 15 years. A verdict could come as early as next Spring.

Since he is no longer prime minister, prosecutors and witnesses may be bolder.

"There's a good chance of that," says Hopkin. "The fact that he's now weakened, people will be more willing to talk, more willing to testify against him."

Investigators are looking into more obstruction and bribery charges involving Berlusconi and the man who allegedly supplied him with women for his notorious "bunga bunga" sex parties, businessman Giampaolo Tarantini.

Berlusconi has denied all wrongdoing. Despite the list of criminal cases, few believe the 75-year old will do any serious prison time.

"The Italian system has a whole range of get-outs....It doesn't usually put elderly people in jail unless they're a danger to society," says Hopkin.

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