Moroccan teenager Karima El Mahroug, nicknamed Ruby.

Her chosen meeting place was suitably seedy - a deserted disco whose drink-stained tables and overflowing ashtrays were yet to be cleaned, the morning after the night before.

Just four hours earlier, 18-year-old belly-dancer Karima El Mahroug - or Ruby the Heartbreaker, as she styles herself - had been gyrating here, before a sea of leering faces.

Now Italy’s answer to Christine Keeler had slipped on a see-through pullover and returned to the nightclub, in the tough Mediterranean port of Genoa, intent on making more money - this time without breaking sweat.

She was hawking what she claimed to be “exciting new developments” behind a sensational political sex scandal the Italians have dubbed Rubygate.

It is a tale of such breathtaking debauchery that it has sent shockwaves through a country long synonymous with immorality and corruption in high places. The saga even threatens to bring down Italy’s “Teflon” Prime Minister, 74-year-old Silvio Berlusconi; a man who has survived so many murky criminal investigations down the years that he was previously thought untouchable.

Last Sunday, a million people in 200 towns and cities took to the streets in protest against his alleged sordid shenanigans with Ruby and other young “good-time girls”. They chanted for the resignation of their “paedophile premier”.

Then, on Tuesday, Milan judge Cristina Di Censo ruled that Berlusconi must face trial on charges of having sex with a minor and abusing his powers in an apparent effort to cover up the illicit liaison.

She has deemed the prosecution case sufficiently strong to be fast-tracked through the country’s appallingly log-jammed courts and to begin in early April.

It means the longest-serving premier in the G8 group of world powers will be called to give evidence, on oath, and if convicted he could be sent to prison for 15 years. Even by Italian standards, it promises to be a sensational hearing.

The “minor” in question is Ruby - a voluptuous Moroccan migre who was taken into care after a bitter culture clash with her traditional, Muslim family, and later ran away from a children’s home to become a belly-dancer.

According to prosecutors, she was the youngest among a harem procured by the premier’s personal pimp - a high-powered showbusiness agent named Lele Mora - and was paid to attend orgies at Berlusconi’s palatial villa on the outskirts of Milan.

During at least one of these so-called “bunga-bunga parties” (the term apparently refers to a crude after-dinner game acted out for Berlusconi and his elderly cronies) the billionaire Italian leader allegedly had sex with Ruby.

This is said to have happened early last year, when she was aged 17. In Italy it is illegal to pay for sex with a girl below the age of 18.

The abuse of power charge relates to a bizarre episode that unfolded around the same time, when - very inconveniently - Berlusconi’s favourite belly-dancer was arrested on suspicion of stealing from her flatmate.

On learning Ruby was in custody, the Prime Minister woke Milan’s police chief with a frantic late-night phone call. Claiming she was a granddaughter of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, he demanded her immediate release to avoid a diplomatic incident.

Berlusconi insists that this was a genuine mistake, saying Ruby had convinced him she really was related to Mubarak. However, prosecutors believe he had her freed because he was terrified she might spill the beans about the orgies.

The Prime Minister maintains his parties were simply “convivial affairs” with dancing and chit-chat, saying he prefers the company of younger people (though only if they are female and voluptuous, it seems).

Whatever the truth, some highly embarrassing facts appear beyond dispute - their veracity proven by dozens of tapped phone-calls between the girls, Berlusconi and members of his trusted inner circle.

The premier, whose second wife Veronica has left him because she “cannot remain with a man who consorts with minors”, certainly did host parties that were at least highly inappropriate for a man in his position.

At these dubious functions, some two dozen girls youthful enough to be his granddaughter entertained him and his geriatric pals.

And in one recorded phone call, a female guest described how their behaviour degenerated during the post-dinner dancing session, describing the discotheque as “basically, a brothel”.

“Listen - it’s a lot worse than the newspapers say,” she told a friend.Quite apart from the moral probity of these Borgias-style Roman free-for-alls, they compromised state security.

The alluring young guests were whisked into the Prime Minister’s villa without so much as a cursory search, let alone being vetted. And there was the clear potential for blackmail.

Can Berlusconi ride out the scandal? Astonishingly, some suggest he can. He is, after all, a past master at cheating justice and has already survived no fewer than 22 trials on charges ranging from bribery of judges to false accounting.

His usual tactic is to change the law to thwart his accusers. For example, many of his cases have been “timed out” because he shortened the statute of limitations - the length of time after an event or incident that legal proceedings concerning it can be initiated.

He also holds an iron grip on the Italian media. In a country where only a tiny minority of people read newspapers, he controls 90 percent of the TV channels - which explains the scandalously brief coverage given to last Sunday’s rallies.

Worse, say his critics, by screening an endless stream of inane shows parading scantily-clad young women he has coarsened Italian society to the point where many people - old and young - actually admire a 74-year-old playboy premier with sufficient energy to cavort with young girls.

In this vacuous society, the fact that he owns the nation’s best football team, AC Milan, ranks among the world’s richest entrepreneurs, makes sleazy and sometimes overtly racist “jokes” regardless of causing offence, and is vain enough to have had plastic surgery and a hair transplant, only enhances his image.

“The tragedy for Italy is that Berlusconi represents the dream of the average Italian, and not just men but women, too,” lamented Guilia Bergamaschi, a 22-year-old psychiatric technician, during Sunday’s anti-Berlusconi rally in Genoa. “All they are interested in is money, sex and power.”

The latest opinion polls suggest she is right. Though the Rubygate scandal first erupted a year ago, his popular support has fallen by just 5 percent, and one in three people still backs him - probably enough to secure his re-election in a coalition government if he is forced to the polls.

But is he guilty as charged?

In an attempt to get to the truth of this labyrinthine scandal, I have had sight of the 389-page dossier upon which the prosecution hangs and spoken to key figures in the case.

While there appears to be any amount of circumstantial evidence, it is difficult to see how he will be convicted.

For one thing, it is not only Berlusconi who denies that anything untoward took place at the parties; Ruby also insists they simply engaged in some fun - although by her own account, it was hardly innocent.

In her statement to prosecutors, leaked to the Italian media yesterday, she said she found herself alone in a room with Berlusconi at one of his parties on Valentine’s Day last year. “He gave me an envelope with 50 000 Euros in it...He said that my life would change and it was not hard for me to see he was suggesting sex with him.”

Furthermore, she said that although she initially told Berlusconi she was 24, she later admitted to him that she was a minor.

How on earth did this bewitching girl from an impoverished Moroccan background find herself in such an extraordinary situation? Born in a village three hours from Casablanca, she moved to the Sicilian town of Letojanni with her parents, Mohammed and Zahara, and her younger brother and sister, when she was nine years old. Her father now sells trinkets on the seafront.

Her former headmistress, Giovanna Campagna, remembers her as a bright, pretty girl, but says she was prone to “embellishing stories” about herself, even then.

Perhaps because the local children refused to mix with Moroccans, during her early teens she clashed with her parents by declaring her wish to convert to Catholicism and wear western clothes. She also claims her father promised her in marriage, ironically, to an older man.

What happened when the row escalated is a matter of fierce dispute. Karima, or “Ruby”, claims her father poured boiling oil over her (which her headmistress finds hard to believe) and that she was brutally raped by relatives. Her parents say she is lying.

But after begging a juvenile panel to remove her from the family’s rundown flat, she was taken in by the social services and placed in a children’s home in the nearby town of Messina. She was then 15.

Exactly how she was allowed to run away, and ended up working as a belly-dancer in the fleshpots of Milan, more than 900 miles away, has never been properly explained.

However, in September 2009, when she was still in Messina, she took part in a local beauty contest and one of the judges was Emilio Fede, the 80-year-old star presenter on Berlusconi’s flagship TV news programme.

Fede insists that he spoke to Ruby only briefly and never saw her again. Intriguingly, though, he was among the bunga-bunga party guests and is one of Berlusconi’s co-defendants in the trial.

The third accused is Nicole Minetti, a former dental hygienist who tended to Berlusconi’s broken teeth after he was attacked at a rally in 2009.

Minetti, 25, whose mother is from Newcastle, is alleged to have helped Emilio Fede and Lele Mora (who is yet to be charged) to procure girls for the parties. She has since been rewarded with a position as a regional councillor for Berlusconi’s centre-Right party.

By tracking Ruby’s mobile phone signal, Milan police have learned that she was at, or very near to, the Prime Minister’s residence in Ancore, near Milan, on eight separate occasions between February and May last year: always very late at night or in the small hours.

It has since been established that Berlusconi staged parties on those dates, and that Ruby was among the coterie of girls he invited.

By then she was lodging in the Milan apartment of Caterina Pasqunio, 30, a rake-thin, chain-smoking nightclub “PR” who says she took pity on Ruby because she claimed to be homeless and broke.

In a statement to police, Pasquino has told how Ruby boasted of being invited to Berlusconi’s house and having after-dinner sex with him.

This week, Pasquino repeated those claims to me - but with an important caveat.

Ruby was such a pathological liar, she said, and so frequently changed her outlandish stories, that she was unable to believe a word she said.

This must be music to Berlusconi’s ears - particularly as Pasquino is among the very few players in this drama prepared to testify against Italy’s most powerful man.

After receiving a series of menacing phone messages and texts (including one sent from Ruby’s mobile phone, which she showed to me) she is now “living in fear”. Given the long-standing rumours of Berlusconi’s Mafia links, this is understandable. Who knows whether she’s discrediting Ruby because she’s been scared off.

Her precarious situation is quite a contrast to that of her former lodger, who allegedly stole £3 000 from her, plus a phone, some jewellery and dresses, and escaped being charged, thanks to the Prime Minister’s timely late-night intervention.

Though she is no longer on Berlusconi’s guest-list, the grasping and breathtakingly self-possessed Ruby is already believed to have made a tidy sum by selling an exclusive TV interview - to one of the premier’s own, very favourable, channels, naturally.

And when we met in her boyfriend Luca’s disco this week, she reached into her jeans pocket and fished out her latest cheque, for 4 000 euros; her fee for an article and photo-shoot for a Berlusconi-owned magazine.

“But there’s still so many new things I can tell you,” she said, touting - vainly - for another bumper pay-day.

“I am two months pregnant and me and Luca plan to go and live in Mexico soon, to escape all this political madness,” she cooed, tossing her luxuriant hair self-importantly. Smiling mischievously, she added: “I could have gone to America instead - but Obama would have been there and this all this might happen again with him. He’s certainly better looking (than Berlusconi)!”

To Ruby the Heartbreaker, the scandal that has humiliated her adopted country in the eyes of the world is clearly one big joke.

For Italy’s grubby Prime Minister, however, it is no laughing matter. - Daily Mail