MILAN - Silvio Berlusconi's private disco featured not only aspiring showgirls performing striptease acts as sexy nuns and nurses, but one woman dressed up as President Barack Obama and a prominent Milan prosecutor whom the billionaire media mogul has accused of persecuting him, according to the first public sworn testimony by the Moroccan woman at the centre of the scandal.
Karima el-Mahroug's testimony Friday at the trial of three former Berlusconi aides accused with procuring her and other women for prostitution confirms a sexually charged atmosphere at the "bunga bunga" parties of the then-sitting premier. The trial is separate from the one in which Berlusconi is charged with paying for sex with a minor — el-Mahroug when she was 17 — and trying to cover it up.
El-Mahroug, now 20, said she attended about a half-dozen parties, using her nickname Ruby, and that after each, Berlusconi handed her an envelope with up to 3,000 euros ($3,900) in denominations of 500. She said she later received 30,000 euros cash from the then-premier paid through an intermediary — money that she told Berlusconi she wanted to use to open a beautician salon despite having no formal training.
But she denied that Berlusconi had ever given her 5 million euros ($6.43 million). She said she told acquaintances and even her father that she was going to receive such a large sum "as a boast," but that it was a lie to make her seem more important.
The three Berlusconi aides — Emilio Fede, an executive in Berlusconi's media empire; Nicole Minetti, a former dental hygienist, showgirl and local politician, and talent agent Dario "Lele" Mora — are accused of recruiting women for prostitution at the parties and abetting prostitution, including of a minor. They deny the charges.
El-Mahroug has made carefully orchestrated statements to the media since the scandal broke, but has never publicly given sworn testimony. Both she and Berlusconi deny having had sex.
Dressed soberly with her hair pulled back, El-Mahroug said she first made contact with Berlusconi's inner circle when she participated in a beauty contest organized by Fede in Sicily when she was 16.
After that she made her way to Milan, hoping to find work. She said she tried to get work through another defendant's talent agency but didn't have proper identity documents, and wound up landing a job as a hostess in nightclubs, earning around 100 euros ($130) a night.
She frequently changed accommodation during that time, staying for periods of days with people whose names she no longer recalls.
Eventually, she ran into Fede at a restaurant, where she reminded him of his promise in Sicily to help her. Shortly thereafter, she was invited to a dinner party, at Berlusconi's villa outside of Milan.
She testified that she met the premier that night — on Valentine's Day in 2010 — and that he gave her an envelope of 2,000 to 3,000 euros ($2,600 to $3,900) as she was leaving, saying it was "a little help" and asking for her telephone number, which she gave him.
At that party, she said, she introduced herself as Ruby and told other guests a fake tale that she was Egyptian, that her mother was a famous Arab singer and that she was related to then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. She was 17 at the time but had passed herself off as being 23 or 24.
El-Mahroug confirmed Friday what other witnesses have testified previously: that at some of the soirees, young female party guests had dressed up like nuns and danced for Berlusconi and then stripped down to their underwear.
The parties took place in a disco in Berlusconi's villa equipped with a lap dance pole. El-Mahroug told the court that there was sometimes a singer who is close to Berlusconi at the parties, but most of the guests were young women. While she went home in a taxi alone the first night, other times, she testified, she slept in a guest room by herself. Since she only had the dress she was wearing, she was given a track suit in the morning to have breakfast, and sometimes stayed for lunch, leaving in the late afternoon.
El-Mahroug said Minetti, one of the defendants, had dressed up like a nun at that Feb. 14 party and lifted her costume to show off her legs as she danced in Berlusconi's in-house disco. El-Mahroug demonstrated from her seat how Minetti had raised her hemline. She said Minetti eventually took off her costume and was in just her lingerie.
She said another young woman dressed up alternately as Obama or a Milan magistrate who is leading the prosecution against Berlusconi in the sex scandal, donning a red wig and the black robes worn by magistrates in Italy.
"The girls who were dressed in costumes approached him in a sensual way as they danced. They raised their skirts," El-Mahroug testified. She added: "I never saw contact."
On the stand, El-Mahroug denied ever having acted as a prostitute, and repeated her denials that she ever had sex with Berlusconi.
However, when the presiding judge pressed her on wiretaps in which she appears to be referring to acts of prostitution, she said that her statements then were just "stupid things." It was the same phrase she used to explain away her statements that she was about to receive 5 million euros from the then-premier.
At one point, the judge admonished her that she was testifying at a trial aimed at ascertaining the facts, not appearing on a televised interview, when she appeared to criticize prosecutors, then backed down.
Prosecutors in Berlusconi's separate trial have said El-Mahroug's testimony is unreliable and are relying on her sworn statements. The defence had initially called her as a witness, but then changed its strategy and didn't call her. That trial is nearing a verdict and will reconvene May 24.
AP writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Rome.