Rome: Ruby the Heart Stealer, the erotic dancer at the centre of the sex scandal that led to the downfall of disgraced former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, has said he should never have been convicted and did nothing wrong.
The showgirl, whose real name is Karima el-Mahroug, was speaking as the former Italian prime minister began an appeal against his prison sentence for paying for sex with an under-age girl.
"The truth is that Mr Berlusconi respected me more than all the men I had met previously," Mahroug told Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family. "They gave him seven years for nothing."
The three-time prime minister was sentenced last year to seven years in jail and banned from holding public office for having sex with the then under-age Moroccan-born belly dancer at "bunga bunga" parties at his villa near Milan.
Berlusconi, 77, was not present in court in Milan as he was doing community service for a separate tax fraud conviction. A definitive verdict from the court can mean the billionaire will no longer be eligible for community service and may instead be sentenced to house arrest.
Mahroug, now 21, said things she said during phone calls, which were tapped, during which she told friends she had sexual relations with Mr Berlusconi, were lies. "I was only 17, I was adrift. I invented bullshit," she said. "The real problem is what happened later.
"When the prosecutors came to interrogate me, they had no interest in me, they wanted only Mr Berlusconi at any cost and I gave them what they wanted."
Forty-five people are being investigated, including Berlusconi, his lawyers and Mahroug. Many of the witnesses, including 18 of the 32 women who attended Mr Berlusconi's parties and testified in his defence at the first trial, have been indicted for alleged perjury.
Mahroug told the first trial she attended "sensual" soirees at Berlusconi's villa, saying she was paid between £2000 ($3600) or £3000 a night, but she denied having sex with the tycoon.
Paying for sex with a woman under the age of 18 is an offence in Italy and Berlusconi has always denied any wrongdoing. His first appeal hearing on Friday fixed the date for the closing prosecution speech on July 11 and a verdict on July 18.