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The Berlusconi sex scandal explained

By Hada Messia for CNN
Berlusconi has joked about how unlikely it is that a man his age would be capable of the sexual feats some have claimed.
Berlusconi has joked about how unlikely it is that a man his age would be capable of the sexual feats some have claimed.
  • Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi is currently on trial in Milan
  • He faces allegations that he paid for sex with a minor and abused power when she was arrested
  • Appointment of ex-topless model to post of Equal Opportunity Minister also drawn criticism
  • Embattled PM recently suffered political defeats in local elections and a national referendum

Rome (CNN) -- For the past eight months, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been engulfed in a sex scandal that has him accused of paying for sex with a minor.

He is presently on trial in Milan for allegedly paying for sex with 17-year-old Moroccan belly dancer Karima El Mahroug, known as "Ruby the heart stealer."

He is charged with abuse of power because prosecutors say he phoned a police station -- where she was being held on theft charges -- to have her released.

Berlusconi has repeatedly denied all of the allegations, even joking about how unlikely it is that a man his age would be capable of the sexual feats some have claimed. "I'm 74 years old and even though I may be a bit of a rascal, 33 girls in two months seems to me too much even for a 30-year-old."

The recent scandal is not the first to emerge since Berlusconi became premier for a third time in 2008.

In 2009, his wife of 19 years, Veronica Lario, filed for divorce and publicly accused her husband of "consorting with minors" after he attended the 18th birthday party of an aspiring TV actress and model called Noemi Letizia. Berlusconi said the young woman was the daughter of a friend and that he had done nothing inappropriate. Noemi Letizia and her family also said there was nothing improper.

Who is 'Ruby'?
Silvio Berlusconi on trial

That same year, Patrizia D'Addario alleged she and other girls were paid to attend parties at Berlusconi's residence. Berlusconi denied the claim, telling his weekly magazine Chi: "I never understood where the satisfaction is when you're missing the pleasure of conquest."

Soon after the Ruby scandal broke IN 2010, he said at a public event: "It's better to be fond of beautiful girls than to be gay."

Ruby has denied having sex with the premier. Both admit that he gave her money, although they say it was an act of kindness to help the young girl.

In their 389-page document presented to the court, prosecutors allege Berlusconi paid Ruby, and scores of other young women, for taking part in "bunga bunga parties" held in Berlusconi's private residence.

Using what they say are phone interceptions of the young women as evidence, prosecutors say the women performed stripteases and erotic actions in exchange for money and gifts. Berlusconi says the parties were normal dinner gatherings, and that no one misbehaved.

This is a view shared by his supporters like Annalisa Amicucci, a lawyer. For her it is Berlusconi's right to hold whatever types of private parties he wants and "neither journalists nor magistrates should try to stop that."

"He needs to have his time off," she says, adding that if the girls attended those parties, they did it willingly. "Nobody forced them," she says. Amicucci also says the public prosecutor's allegations that the Italian premier paid for sex are "outrageous."

According to her, Berlusconi "gives gifts to women because he is generous, he is generous with everybody. Women adore him, including myself, for the man he is, for what he has achieved and does for our country. He does not need to pay for sex."

Q&A: Silvio Berlusconi's legal woes

But not everyone agrees with loyal Berlusconi followers like Amicucci.

Nicoletta Dentico, founder of the women's movement Se Non Ora Quando (If Not Now When), says: "Nowhere else in the world would a prime minister who is enveloped in these types of scandals remain in place.

"It reflects a type of pathology that exists in this country. We have a democracy but evidently it is not properly functioning."

Psychiatrist, professor and author Massimo Fagioli says the reason Italians tolerate Berlusconi can be found in history, where absolute rulers who appeared to act above the law are a recurring theme. Berlusconi, he says, is no exception.

Fagioli says that Italians' tolerance of scandalous behavior is not just fascinating, but scary. He describes it as a "mental coma" with no clear cut explanation.

Since the scandal broke in January, there have been very few impartial polls to measure Berlusconi's approval rating. The most recent, from February, shows 44% of Italians believe the premier should resign over "Rubygate," -- as the scandal has become known in Italy -- a statistic considered low by many observers.

Fagioli, who has more than 50 years' experience analyzing human behavior, believes Italians have a tendency to shrug off these types of scandals because they say "he has the money. He can do whatever he wants."

"It's a Catholic mentality," he adds. "Sin at night and confess in the morning."

Nowhere else in the world would a prime minister who is enveloped in these types of scandals remain in place.
--Nicoletta Dentica, women's activist

Dentico believes that Berlusconi has won the tolerance of Italians through the influence of his media empire through which he has managed to "prepare the grounds before coming to power."

"He is a perfect communicator and a good seller," she says. She says she was previously one of the many tolerant Italians, but things began to change for her when the premier's scandal with Noemi broke.

"As a woman, and as a mother of an adolescent girl, I started to freak out, thinking, is this the way 'Papi' decides who goes into television, and who goes into politics?"

Dentico says many girls want to emulate the model projected by Berlusconi's TV channels, which promote a stereotypical idea of young women as dancers and TV show girls, known in Italy as "veline."

The fact that Berlusconi has rewarded some of the former "veline" by appointing them to political posts exacerbates the problem, according to Dentico. He appointed Mara Carfagna -- formerly a topless model -- to the post of Equal Opportunity Minister, a post she later resigned.

He also named Michela Vittoria Brambilla -- who hosted a television show about sexy nightclubs -- as undersecretary of tourism. And Nicole Minetti a dental hygienist-- also formerly on one of his channels -- is now a regional councillor for the Lombardy region. The women have all defended the appointments, saying they're up to the job. Berlusconi agreed, saying all the women are talented and critics are just envious.

Still, Dentico sees these promotions as a reward for those girls who choose to be the way the premier wants them. She says: "This connection between power and sex, it has always existed, but the fact that you select the political class and you actually select the gender quota through this kind of mechanism, is revolting."

Dentico and her colleagues decided to take action. In February, her movement organized a protest march which drew hundreds of thousands throughout Italy into the streets. The rallies turned out to be the biggest anti-Berlusconi demos yet to take place.

"We can't discuss these things only at dinner tables, or lunch when we are with our friends that are like minded. We had to do more than this. Enough had been spoken. We need to do something about it."

Dentico says the movement goes beyond Berlusconi-- it's a battle to change Italian culture.

"This is a much deeper movement. I can tell you that if Berlusconi were removed we would have to face many other problems for women in many other unsuspected places."

But both Nicoletta and psychiatrist Fagioli think the tide is beginning to turn against Berlusconi and that Italians are slowing waking up from the "cosi fan tutti," (so do all behave) attitude of tolerance.

Profile: Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's embattled leader

Berlusconi recently suffered political defeats both in local elections, where he lost his political core city of Milan, and in a national referendum, where he lost his government's bid for the privatization of water, the re-introduction of nuclear energy and trial immunity for government officials-- including the prime minister.

But it remains unclear if this recent turn of events is linked to his government's policies, or speculation about the premier's private habits and "Ruby the heart stealer" scandal.