MILAN (Reuters) - The nightclub dancer at the center of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's sex trial staged a dramatic protest outside the court on Thursday, alleging that she had been unfairly pressured as part of a campaign against Berlusconi.
Karima El Mahroug's emotional and at times contradictory statement in defense of Berlusconi follows a protest by parliamentarians from his party outside the court last month as the media magnate tries to have the trial moved away from Milan.
The charges against Berlusconi, which he denies, include paying for sex with El Mahroug, better known under her stage name "Ruby the Heartstealer", when she was a minor.
She has always denied being a prostitute or having sex with the 76-year-old billionaire during the now-notorious "bunga bunga" evenings at his villa outside Milan, where numerous witnesses have said she was a regular guest.
Carrying a large sign reading "The Ruby case: Are you not interested in the truth any more?", she said she had been used as part of a deliberate campaign against Berlusconi by magistrates and sections of the press.
"Today I realize that there is a war under way against him that I do not feel part of, but which has dragged me in and injures me," she said, reading a prepared statement. "I do not want to be a victim of this situation."
El Mahroug demanded to be allowed to testify in open court but declined to explain to reporters why she had avoided summons to appear at previous hearings. As recently as December, she failed to appear in court, later turning up in Mexico, where she said she was on holiday.
The trial has been suspended while judges consider Berlusconi's request to transfer it away from Milan, where he says magistrates are waging a vendetta against him. The next hearing is due on April 22.
"I FELT USED"
Berlusconi is also appealing against a four-year sentence for tax fraud, and his legal problems further complicate the political standoff that arose when elections in February left no party able to form a government.
El Mahroug, her voice breaking at times, said she had been publicly humiliated by the implication that she was a prostitute and said that investigators had exploited her vulnerability to attack Berlusconi, leader of Italy's main center-right party.
She said she faced "real and genuine psychological torture" from magistrates once they realized that she would not provide evidence against Berlusconi.
"I felt used by sections of the press and judges which had a common objective, to hurt people who had helped me," she said.
"My suffering is also the fault of those judges ... who described me as a prostitute even though I always denied having sexual relations for money and above all having them with Silvio Berlusconi."
As well as the charge of paying for sex with a person under the age of 18 years, Berlusconi is also accused of abusing the powers of his office by getting El Mahroug released from custody in 2010 when she was held on an unrelated theft charge.
Prosecutors say Berlusconi asked police to release her because she was a niece of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
However, El Mahroug admitted to having made this up, saying she had created a "parallel life" as she tried to imagine a different life from the poverty-stricken world in which she grew up.
"I'm sorry to have told these lies to Silvio Berlusconi as well, who I am sure today would be ready to help me even if I had told the truth," she said.