MILAN (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi paid a teenage nightclub dancer for sex but there is no proof he knew her age at the time, an Italian appeals court said on Thursday, explaining its decision to overturn the former prime minister's "bunga bunga" conviction.
Explaining its surprise decision to acquit Berlusconi on July 18, the Milan appeals court said there was insufficient evidence to show that he knew Karima El Mahroug, also known as "Ruby the Heartstealer", was under 18 when she attended orgiastic "bunga bunga" parties at his mansion near Milan.
Still the most influential politician on Italy's center right even as he serves a community service sentence for tax fraud, Berlusconi was sentenced to seven years in jail and banned from public office last year after a lower court found him guilty of paying for sex with a minor and abuse of office.
The acquittal in July was a boost for the 78-year-old four-time prime minister and media tycoon who is struggling to contain bitter infighting in the Forza Italia party he founded in 1994 and continues to lead.
Judges uncovered a "system of prostitution" that revolved around the parties and said there was proof of the "performance of sexual acts for a fee between the defendant and the minor".
Both Berlusconi and Morocco-born El Mahroug repeatedly denied ever having sex with each other.
Berlusconi was also cleared in July of a more serious charge of abusing his office as prime minister when he called a police station to secure El Mahroug's release from custody on suspicion of stealing a 3,000 euro ($3,800) bracelet in May 2010.
The court, meeting its 90-day deadline to explain its decision, said Berlusconi's actions "revealed a clear and precise interest on the part of the prime minister in the fate of the young woman" but that he had not threatened the police.
Berlusconi's lawyers said he had made the call to avoid a diplomatic incident because he thought El Mahroug was related to then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Louise Ireland