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Goodbye 'bunga bunga', hello prison for Berlusconi?

By Claudio Lavanga, NBC News producer

ROME — Saturday could be the last day of Silvio Berlusconi's time as prime minister of Italy, and the first day of the rest of his life as one of the richest retirees on earth — or a convict.

On paper, the 74-year-old Berlusconi could retire gracefully. As a businessman, he has amassed a multi-billion-dollar fortune through his television, editorial and property empires, and he is spoiled for choice for his retirement home.

Charles Platiau / Reuters, file

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives for the second day of the G20 Summit in Cannes on Nov. 4.

He could move back to his beloved Villa San Martino, a former monastery turned into lavish residence in the outskirts of Milan, and escape the harsh winters of the northern Italian city by relaxing in the stunning Villa Certosa, his summer residence on the island of Sardinia.

There, he could spend days admiring nature, the fireworks from the fake volcano he had built in his gardens to entertain his guests, and finally indulge in the presence of the many topless women who were photographed at the villa during his premiership — without having to apologize for it.

But Silvio Berlusconi is not a man who likes to rest. He admits he doesn’t sleep longer than three hours a night, and in the past two decades he has proved he possesses an enviable stamina for a man his age.

Should he feel restless, he could always watch a game of his beloved A.C. Milan, the top Italian soccer team he owns, or organize one of his infamous 'bunga bunga' parties, allegedly his favorite after-dinner pastime, without worrying about the public sentiment over it.

But there is another, less pleasant alternative: He could spend the rest of his life in prison.


'Ruby the heart-stealer'
Berlusconi is still a defendant in three different trials. He is being charged with corruption, abuse of office, and famously for having slept with a 17-year old prostitute dubbed “Ruby the heart-stealer.”

Should he be found guilty of all charges, he could potentially spend more than 15 years in prison, and say goodbye to 'bunga bunga'.

And yet Berlusconi might not be losing any of those three hours of sleep over it.

While in office, his government lowered the statute of limitations, effectively the expiration date for legal proceedings, prompting suspicions that it was yet another attempt to save himself from his legal woes. And it might have worked.

One of the most damaging accusations, that of having bribed British tax lawyer David Mills to lie under oath in two previous corruption trials against him, will fall under the new statute of limitations in January 2012, potentially sparing Berlusconi the embarrassment and prison term that would come with a guilty verdict.

Another case — in which he and other executives are accused of buying U.S. movie rights at inflated prices via two offshore companies under his control — will expire in 2014, which is probably too soon for the famously slow legal Italian system to prove his guilt.

Another masterstroke by Berlusconi during his time in office was the attempt in 2010 to introduce a law that granted immunity to top government officials, including himself.

That law was overturned by Italy’s constitutional court in 2011, but it still bought some precious time for the embattled premier.

Too busy for court
So what will change from Saturday, when he is expected to step down?

His biggest problem will be trying to delay further trial proceeding by using the last card in his hand: Claiming he was too busy with institutional commitments to attend court hearings, the famous “legitimate impediment.”

This will no doubt speed up the three trials that he has so far managed to dodge.

And yet, rather than worrying about his own future, Berlusconi has proved that in the last few days in parliament that he is worried more about his sons and daughters.

He introduced in one bill, which was drawn to tackle Italy’s economic crisis, a new inheritance law that allows him to choose how to spread his wealth after his death.

He is believed to want to favor the offspring of his first marriage over the sons and daughters he had with his estranged second wife, Veronica Lario, who left him in 2009 claiming she could “no longer be with a man who consorts with minors.”

It is a worthy final act for a prime minister who has been accused throughout his career of caring more about his interests than those of the nation.

It is believed that while Rome burned, the emperor Nero played a string instrument called a Lyre. In the case of the colorful Silvio Berlusconi, most Italians feel they were played by him while they watched their country fall into ruin.