Italy's parliament backs Berlusconi in sex scandal

Parliament backs Berlusconi after prosecutors request to search his properties in prostitution probe

Published February 3, 2011 6:28PM (EST)

Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi at a speech in Milan, Italy on September 27, 2009.      (AP Photo/Alberto Pellaschiar)
Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi at a speech in Milan, Italy on September 27, 2009. (AP Photo/Alberto Pellaschiar)

Italian parliament has rejected prosecutors' request to search some of the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's properties in a prostitution probe targeting him.

Milan prosecutors allege Berlusconi paid for sex with a minor and then used his office to cover it up. They wanted to search the offices of a Berlusconi accountant, Giuseppe Spinelli, who allegedly handled payments on behalf of the premier to the minor as well as to scores of young women attending parties at his villas.

But parliament rebuffed their requests in a vote Thursday. They sent the case back to the prosecutors, challenging their jurisdiction.

The premier has denied wrongdoing. Prosecutors must seek permission from parliament because lawmakers enjoy some immunity, and Berlusconi, in addition to being premier, is a member of the lower house of parliament.

The vote might have limited impact on the investigation. Magistrates are planning to go ahead with their probe, and are expected to issue a request for indictment of Berlusconi as early as next week.

But the vote's outcome might be significant in assessing Berlusconi's grip on parliament. The premier has seen his parliamentary majority eroded after he fell out with an ally last year, and he barely survived a pair of confidence votes in December.

Berlusconi's allies in parliament want to send the case back to Milan's prosecutors, challenging their jurisdiction. Berlusconi's lawyers maintain the competent body is the Tribunal of Ministers, a three-member special tribunal set up to deal with alleged offenses committed by public officials in the execution of their duties.

Berlusconi already suffered a setback earlier Thursday when a parliamentary commission deadlocked a government plan to grant Italy's towns and cities a greater role in taxation. Enacting the measure is the top priority of the Northern League, a crucial Berlusconi ally.

Northern League leaders had threatened to force early elections if the measure isn't passed. However, the vote Thursday was not binding and the full house can still approve the measure.

"What they say publicly is that they will draw their support and call for early elections," political analyst Roberto D'Alimonte said of the League. "But we will have to see tomorrow and the day after. In Italy, the wind blows every day in a different direction."

Berlusconi, 74, has rejected calls for his resignation in the wake of the sex scandal, which has come to be known in Italy as "Ruby-gate," in reference to the nickname of the Moroccan teenager at the center of the probe.

Prosecutors allege Berlusconi paid for sex with Ruby last year, when she was 17, and then abused his power when he called a police official in May to get the girl out of police custody. She was being held for an unrelated theft.

Berlusconi and Ruby, who in the meantime has turned 18, have denied a sexual relationship. Berlusconi, who was elected in 2008, has accused the prosecutors of being politically motivated and intent on driving him out of office.

By Associated Press

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Italy Silvio Berlusconi