Magistrates have opened a judicial inquiry into the relationship between Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and an underage girl. Berlusconi denies any wrong-doing and says he is being hounded by politically opponents.
Ruby Rubacuori claims she never had sex with Berlusconi
Magistrates in Milan have opened an inquiry into the relationship between Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and a teenage nightclub dancer who attended parties at his private residence, prosecutors said on Friday.
A day after Italy's top court partially struck down a law that gave him blanket immunity from prosecution, the news added pressure on the premier, who is battling to shore up his shaky government and already faces tax fraud and corruption charges.
The magistrates said they are investigating allegations that Berlusconi paid to have sex with Karima El Mahroug, who used the stage name "Ruby Rubacuori" (Ruby Heartstealer) at Berlusconi's Arcore villa near Milan between February and May 2010. At the time, she was 17 years old. Paying for sex with a prostitute under the age of 18 is an offence in Italy.
They are also examining whether he intervened improperly with police to secure her release after she was held for theft.
Berlusconi may now face criminal proceedings after the Constituional Court overturned an immunity law
Prosecutors claim the Italian leader attempted to hide the fact that he was a client of an under-aged prostitute over several weekends at Arcore, and they have issued a summons to Berlusconi and his lawyers.
The prime minister's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini issued a statement dismissing the investigation as "absurd and groundless" and said the allegations had already been denied by witnesses and those directly involved.
The allegations are "a very serious interference in the private life of the head of government, which has no precedent in the country's legal history," he added.
He later said in a separate statement that Berlusconi had never had sex with the girl.
The case of "Ruby", a Moroccan runaway, caused an international media storm last year and instantly made the expression "bunga bunga" - a term used by the young woman to describe sex parties - part of the Italian vocabulary.
She says she was paid 7,000 euro ($9,414) after attending a party at Berlusconi's villa but has denied having sex with him.
Berlusconi has acknowledged knowing Ruby and making a phone call to police on her behalf last May.
Berlusconi said he loved life and women after new reports of sex parties spread across Italy
But he says he was merely offering normal assistance to a person in need and has denied pressuring officers to let her go. He also says nothing improper has ever happened at his parties. Berlusconi was placed under investigation last month but the probe was only made public on Friday.
The 74 year-old premier's mounting legal woes have prompted speculation that his government, which just survived a no-confidence motion in parliament last month, may be close to collapse, bringing early elections to Italy.
On Friday, Berlusconi told Canale 5 television that the constitutional court ruling would not affect his government and dismissed speculation that it would make snap polls more likely.
"The government will continue to go forward because the last thing Italy needs is early elections," he said.
Berlusconi's grip on power has been greatly weakened by last year's split with longtime ally Gianfranco Fini, which cost him a secure majority in parliament.
His legal problems and embroilment in a series of sex scandals have created extra pressure.
In May 2009 his wife, Veronica Lario, announced her intention of divorcing him after reports that Berlusconi had attended the 18th birthday party of a lingerie model.
Lario also accused her husband of "frequenting" underage women, a charge the premier denied.
In June 2009, a self-described escort, Patrizia D'Addario, alleged she spent the night with Berlusconi at his residence in Rome.
Berlusconi has said he is "no saint," but denies ever paying for sex.
He has repeatedly denied the accusations against him and says he is being targeted by politically biased magistrates. His aides said the Milan probe was just the latest example of this.
Author: Natalia Dannenberg (Reuters, dpa, AFP, AP)
Editor: Rob Turner