On the night of 27 May 2010, a 17-year-old exotic nightclub dancer, nome d’arte Ruby the Heart Stealer, left police custody in Milan after the then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had called surprised officials to say that Ruby, née Karima El Mahroug, should be released because she was none other than the granddaughter of the Egyptian president. “If she’s the granddaughter of Mubarak, then I’m Queen Nefertiti,” scoffed Milan’s juvenile-crime magistrate Annamaria Fiorillo. But before she was able to take charge, the belly-dancing runaway, held for suspected theft, was released into the care of one of the premier’s associates. The magistrate’s interest was understandably piqued and the probe that became the Rubygate affair began.
El Mahroug was not born in the upper echelons of Egyptian society, but to a poor family in Morocco. When she was nine, they moved to Messina, in Sicily. At 14, she fled what she said was an unhappy home, where she suffered beatings from her strictly Islamic father. After she’d run away, her existence seemed to be a depressing and unrelenting participation in the flesh trade. But by the time she’d worked her charms on Italy’s most powerful man, she would be a very rich woman indeed.
After leaving home, a pattern of short stays with strangers followed until September 2009, when, still only 16, she participated in a beauty contest near Messina. In the jury was none other than Berlusconi’s “talent spotter”, the newsreader Emilio Fede, who said he was moved by her story and longed to help her. And not long after that, she moved to Milan. Many reports say she was already selling sex then; she certainly never appeared short of cash. And when she was mugged in the Corso Buenos Aires district in 2010, officers who recovered her stolen handbag reported it contained the equivalent of $3,200 (probably a handout from the prime minister). However, it was an accusation of theft against El Mahroug that brought the whole squalid theatre of the “bunga bunga” parties into the open.
Katia Pasquino, a young woman who’d put El Mahroug up for a few weeks, claimed the young Moroccan had stolen €3,000 ($2,100) from her apartment. And at around 6pm on 27 May, two weeks after the alleged theft, she spotted her by chance and called the police. El Mahroug finished up at the city’s main police station, where arresting officer Ermes Cafaro received instructions from Fiorillo to take her to a safe unit for juveniles. But then, out of the blue at 11.49pm, Berlusconi, who was in Paris, called. The prime minister spoke to the duty officer, told him about the Egyptian President, and said he would send around one of his associates, Nicole Minetti, to collect her. (He called her his “ministerial adviser” – a title he’d made up on the spot.)
Minetti had been a go-go dancer, but retrained as a hygienist – the mogul had spotted her talents while she was tending his gums – and she was his chief madam. Appropriately, she was accompanied at the jailbreak by a Brazilian prostitute, Michelle Conceicao, who then took El Mahroug for safekeeping to a dingy flat in Milan’s canal district. A week later, the police were called again when the young Moroccan needed hospital treatment after a fight with her hostess.
Milan’s magistrates were becoming ever more curious about the young runaway and, above all, her links to the prime minister. (It couldn’t have helped that the seedy, bankrupt impresario Lele Mora, who’d often benefited from Berlusconi’s generosity, offered to adopt her.) Why were Berlusconi and his minions showing such a keen interest in this 17-year-old belly dancer? The answer wasn’t long in coming. In fact, the merda hit the fan just a few months later, at the end of October, with a tide of eye-popping newspaper reports. And by May 2011, Berlusconi found himself on trial at Milan’s Palace of Justice, not for the usual white-collar crimes – but this time charged with paying for sex with a minor and abuse of office for having attempted to cover it up.
Magistrates estimate El Mahroug pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly millions, in jewels and cash from Berlusconi. He has always denied the charges and insists any evenings that El Mahroug attended were in fact “elegant” dinners. Participants say they weren’t even edible. Whichever, this time Berlusconi must have known he really was in big trouble. Investigators were already hot on the trail, thanks to a series of illuminating interviews with El Mahroug over the summer of 2010, when she told prosecutors that the prime minister regularly held X-rated soirées at his principal home, Villa San Martino, in Arcore, just outside Milan. She also introduced them to the exotic phrase “bunga bunga”, which they learnt referred to a sort of extreme lap-dancing competition with added groping, in which the lucky winner or winners got to sleep with Berlusconi.
Interviewed in August, she described what she said was her first dinner at Arcore, on 14 February 2010, when Fede sent a limo for her: “That evening Berlusconi explained to me that bunga bunga consisted of a harem that he copied from his friend Gaddafi [the former Libyan dictator], in which the girls take their clothes off and have to provide physical pleasures.”
El Mahroug was never going to be the most reliable witness. But police wire taps confirmed the existence of bunga bunga. And other young female participants furnished astonished magistrates with the salacious details – such as nude girls dancing around a giant phallus while chanting Berlusconi’s self-aggrandising theme tune, “Meno Male Che Silvio C’e” (“Thank Goodness for Silvio”).
Some guests – the ones who liked the sound of the cash and a job on TV, but didn’t really know what they were letting themselves in for – left in a hurry. One described Berlusconi’s Arcore villa as a “whorehouse”. But it was a whorehouse with a difference: there was usually only one customer. As news of the investigation leaked to the papers, Milan’s chief prosecutor called in Berlusconi’s old foe, magistrate Ilda Boccassini, the anti-Mafia specialist, to lead the case. Small and olive-skinned, with fiery red hair and a temper to match, the 65-year-old prosecutor is famous for her methodical approach and has a reputation for toughness that led some Italian crime reporters to dub her “The Terminator”. In the Rubygate case, she pushed for wire taps on everything and everyone possible, insisted the investigation remain hush-hush for as long as possible – and swiftly established one of the principal lies told by Ruby. The young woman said she’d been to Arcore on just three occasions; in fact, she had slept there 15 times, beginning around February 2010.
With sufficient evidence that felonies had been committed, magistrates began bugging the phones of key protagonists, and the deliriously absurd and tawdry details continued to flow freely into the newspapers. Of the scores of young women who had partied at Arcore, a large group came to be known as the Olgettine – after their place of abode, Via Olgettina in the Milano 2 development. (Berlusconi was housing his harem in the apartments that had made his name and his fortune.) The gossip magazine Oggi listed 130 young ladies, including El Mahroug, who were on call to satisfy the mogul’s lust and ego.
The events around El Mahroug’s arrest and her interviews with the authorities must have set alarm bells ringing for Berlusconi, but he was having too much fun to stop. On 22 August, Fede brought to Arcore two new and beautiful young women, Ambra Battilana and Chiara Danese, whom he had wooed with promises of jobs as meteorine (the girls who presented the weather reports on his TG4 news show). And the account they gave to magistrates of their evening at the mogul’s mansion provided some of the most eye-opening and probably most credible witness statements:
Ambra: Berlusconi kept looking at Chiara and me. He dedicated songs in French and Italian to us. But the worst was yet to come. Fifteen minutes after we’d sat down, some of the girls uncovered their breasts, offering them to Berlusconi so he could kiss them. They also touched the prime minister’s intimate parts and made him touch theirs. While this was happening, the girls were still singing “Thank Goodness for Silvio” and calling the prime minister “Papi”, and Berlusconi called all of us “my little girls”.
Chiara: After the umpteenth obscene joke, Berlusconi brings in a statue, it’s in a kind of case, and from it emerges a little man with a huge penis. Berlusconi begins passing it around the girls, and he asks them to kiss the penis… The girls, visibly happy, start to approach the prime minister, they make him kiss their breasts and they touch him… At a certain point, the prime minister, visibly content, asks: “Are you ready for bunga bunga?” The girls shout together: “Yessss!!!”[Berlusconi took the startled guests for a tour of his pleasure dome; the young women noticed that the walls were adorned with placards reading “Long live Silvio” before they entered the disco room, equipped, as any reasonably upgraded 17th-century villa would be, with a pole-dancing platform. Berlusconi, the perfect host, remained close behind Ambra and Chiara, patting their buttocks.]
Building up their courage to leave, Battilana and Danese said to Fede: “We really want to go.”
He gave it to them straight: “If you want to go, fine. But don’t think you’ll be a meteorina or Miss Italia.” They left anyway. And before long the world heard how the Arcore soirées proceeded after the bunga bunga stage – not that it was difficult to guess. Interviews spoke of young guests vomiting, and women arguing and fighting to win Berlusconi’s lucrative affections. Prosecutors recorded one female guest describing the after-effects of an orgy: “There were 20-year-old girls there who were worn out, dead.”Inevitably, Berlusconi claimed that left-wing investigators were orchestrating a plot against him. His supporters accused prosecutors and the prime minister’s critics of interfering in his private life and moralising when they had no right. But Berlusconi must have known that revelations about his dissolute private life meant his two-decade war with magistrates was entering dark new territory. And, unlike the tax fraud and bribery allegations against him, this case didn’t involve complex, decades-old accounting trails spread over several continents. It was recent, clamorous – and there was no chance of the charges being killed by the statute of limitations.
El Mahroug denied from the outset, and continues to deny, that she ever had sex with the prime minister. But she would present the defence with a particular problem if called to the stand. The mogul’s lawyers wanted the court to believe the young woman’s declaration that she and Berlusconi had never had sex. At the same time, the defence wanted the court to disbelieve El Mahroug’s description of rampant sexual activity at the bunga bunga parties because, due to a key legal technicality, the prosecution could win a conviction on the sex-with-a-minor charge simply by showing that El Mahroug had been present and in the thick of things at the tycoon’s bacchanalia.
The prosecution, on the other hand, failed to find the smoking gun – or the DNA-stained dress – to demonstrate beyond doubt that Berlusconi had had sex with El Mahroug. Another question was whether the prosecution could show that Berlusconi knew she was under age. (Failure could mean an acquittal.) However, they had the mogul dead to rights on the abuse-of-office charge. Or so it seemed. The mogul’s roller-coaster ride still had some surprises in store.
In October 2010 a comico-tragic video turned up on the website of Oggi magazine showing another “talent scout” and impresario – Lele Mora – in action. In the clip, scantily clad young women assemble at an address in Milan, before Mora drives them in his Mercedes to Arcore, straight through the gates of the then prime minister’s residence, without so much as a word – let alone a security check – from police guarding the entrance. In addition to the legal and ethical questions over Berlusconi’s lifestyle, this raised another and possibly more serious issue: what kind of risks was this leader of a G7 nation exposing himself and his country to?
What on earth was he doing? The phrase uttered on their separation by Berlusconi’s wife Veronica Lario comes to mind: Berlusconi is not well. And it wasn’t only his critics who began to say so. In April 2011, three months after he had actually been indicted for Rubygate, two allies were recorded discussing the Berlusconi’s psychological state – and his fitness for running the country. Flavio Briatore, the Formula One racing tycoon, was on the phone to the right-wing Berlusconi ultra-loyalist and PDL parliamentarian Daniela Santanche. Briatore told her that Lele Mora had just informed him the prime minister’s bunga bunga nights were still going strong.
As Piero Colaprico, La Repubblica’s chronicler of the Rubygate affair, noted, Berlusconi at the time wasn’t a superman: he was a 74-year-old survivor of prostate cancer who had a heart problem. Having handed out €12m (£8.5m) in cash to his party friends in the space of 12 months, he seemed less like Valentino and more like Europe’s richest charity case. But the pathetic figure he cut wasn’t the only thing weighing on his friends’ minds. To everyone but the distracted and deluded leader of Italy, it was clear the economic collapse that began in the US in 2008 meant that a financial storm was coming, the like of which Italy – and the rest of Europe – had never seen. “If I were in his [Berlusconi’s] position, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night,” said Briatore.
“But not because of the whores. I wouldn’t be able to sleep because of the state that Italy is in.”