MILAN (AP) — A Milan court on Friday convicted three of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi's former associates of procuring aspiring show girls willing to prostitute themselves during the media mogul's infamous "bunga bunga" parties. The convictions, accompanied by stiff sentences, were the latest blow to Berlusconi, whose judicial woes have proven another obstacle for Italy's fragile coalition government as it seeks to get the country's finances in order.
The court handed down severe prison terms: seven years each to Emilio Fede, a longtime executive in the mogul's TV networks, and Dario "Lele" Mora, a talent agent; and five years to Nicole Minetti, a former regional politician who professed love for the ex-premier. All are expected to appeal the verdicts.
The three were part of a circle of formerly trusted associates who attended the racy parties at Berlusconi's villa near Milan that by some accounts revolved around provocative striptease performances for the then-premier. The court concluded that the three, to varying extents, played a role in organizing the women for the parties, which came to light after prosecutors started investigating the role of a Moroccan teen at the center of Berlusconi's sex-for-hire scandal.
Berlusconi wasn't on trial in this case, but he was convicted separately last month of paying for sex with a minor, the then-17-year-old Moroccan named Karima el-Mahroug, and pressuring public officials to cover it up. Both he and the young woman, who goes by her nickname "Ruby," have denied having sex although el-Mahroug testified in the trial of the three aides that Berlusconi gave her envelopes with 2,000 to 3,000 euros ($2,500 to $4,000) cash every time she went to a party, and that she sometimes spent the night.
Berlusconi claims the parties were refined affairs, and that he was merely helping a young woman in need. He has long contended that Milan prosecutors are politically motivated against him. In that case, Berlusconi was given a seven-year prison term and banned from politics for life. He is expected to appeal.
In Italy, prostitution among adults is legal but exploiting prostitutes is a crime. A Berlusconi-led government made it illegal to pay for sex with anyone under 18, raising it from 17. The court found Mora guilty on all counts, which included aiding and abetting prostitution, including of a minor. It indicated it took into account his cooperation and participation in the trial in the seven-year sentence, which was the same as that of Fede, whom the court convicted of aiding and abetting adult prostitution, but not of a minor.
"It's a heavy judgment," said Mora's lawyer, Gianluca Maris. Minetti, whom witnesses said dressed as a nun to perform stripteases at the parties, was convicted of aiding and abetting adult prostitution, but acquitted of a charge of aiding and abetting the prostitution of a minor.
Minetti's lawyer, Pasquale Pantano, said the verdict showed that it wasn't his client "who organized the evenings in Arcore," where the premier has his villa. The conviction, he said, related to the fact she helped organize payments with Berlusconi's accountant for apartments where some of the young women lived. He called the five-year sentence "excessive."
It was Minetti who retrieved el-Mahroug from police custody in August 2010 after Berlusconi intervened when the teen was accused of stealing — calls that led to his conviction of forcing public officials to act to cover up his relationship with the woman.
Fede first met el-Mahroug when she was a 16-year-old contestant in a beauty contest in Sicily, and she later made her way to Milan hoping the connection would help her land work, she told the court during the trial. She eventually made contact with Mora while seeking jobs in nightclubs, bringing her closer to Berlusconi's inner circle. El-Mahroug has denied working as a prostitute.
The court's reconstruction of the three associates' roles won't be known until its reasoning is published sometime in the next three months. But it said Friday that it was turning over files in the case to prosecutors to investigate el-Mahroug, Berlusconi, his lawyers and a number of the women who testified in the case to see if they in any way hindered the trial or investigation.
Berlusconi's judicial woes have been weighing on Italy's uneasy cross-party government. Berlusconi's allies hobbled Parliament's work in protest earlier after Italy's highest court accelerated plans to release its ruling, now set for later this month, on Berlusconi's tax fraud conviction to avoid one charge falling to the statute of limitation.
Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in jail and a five-year ban from public office in the case, and the high court's ruling marks the final appeal.