A former model nicknamed the "Queen Bee" of Silvio Berlusconi's female entourage tearfully denied in court accusations that she supplied prostitutes for the former Italian prime minister's "bunga bunga" parties.
Sabina Began admitted yesterday (Monday) that she had a sexual relationship with Mr Berlusconi, describing him as a "boyfriend" who became a father figure to her.
Miss Began is one of seven people accused of recruiting escorts for Mr Berlusconi's parties at his residence in Rome during his third spell as prime minister.
She gave evidence to the trial in Bari which has lasted for two years and is expected to conclude shortly. Mr Berlusconi, 79, is not accused of any wrongdoing. The trial is not linked to that in which he was convicted, then acquitted on appeal, of paying for sex with a 17-year-old exotic dancer who called herself Ruby the Heart Stealer.
Prosecutors are calling for Miss Began, a German-born model and actress, to be jailed for three years. They allege that she recruited women for the parties at Mr Berlusconi's palazzo in Rome in 2008 and 2009, at the height of the sex scandals that contributed to his downfall in 2011.
"Berlusconi was a wonderful man, marvellous. For me he was first a boyfriend and then like a father," Miss Began said in court, wiping away tears.
"I loved this man very much and I would have done anything for him. When you love someone you dedicate your life to them. I wanted to defend the prime minister. I even said I took part in bunga bunga but everyone knows that is not true."
She said she had arranged "many dinners" for Mr Berlusconi because she wanted to please him.
Fabrizio Siggia, her lawyer, said she should be acquitted of all charges.
"Began had an intimate relationship with Silvio Berlusconi that allowed her to have free access to the residences of the then-premier," said Mr Siggia.
"She wanted him to have fun... that's why she invited girls who would 'play along', who were cute, nice and willing to humour him, willing to laugh at his jokes.
"It seems incredible to imagine that high-class dinners with guests of the calibre of George Clooney could have been occasions for prostitution."
Mr Clooney visited Mr Berlusconi at his Rome palazzo to discuss providing aid for Darfur in Sudan, later describing the encounter as "one of the more astonishing evenings of my life".
The young women who came to the parties were "lured" by the possibility of landing jobs in television and show business - opportunities that Mr Berlusconi could offer through his Mediaset television empire, the court heard.
Mr Berlusconi is trying to relaunch his political career by teaming up his much diminished centre-Right Forza Italia party with the Right-wing Northern League. The billionaire businessman appeared on Sunday at a rally in Bologna alongside Matteo Salvini, 42, the leader of the Northern League.
Together they hope to be able to challenge the centre-Left government of Matteo Renzi at the next general election, due to be held in 2018."With this newfound unity, staying together and fighting together, we will win the next election," Mr Berlusconi said.
He commandeered some of the League's anti-EU rhetoric, saying that Italy wanted "less Europe", and accused Brussels of imposing unpopular austerity policies. He also railed against sanctions against Russia, which he said hurt Italian businesses.