Italy’s beleaguered prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is to face trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and covering up his alleged links to the teenager through an abuse of office.
A judge in Milan on Tuesday set April 6 as the start date for the trial, after studying more than 600 pages of prosecution documents and ruling that there was ample evidence for the case to go to court.
Since entering politics in 1994, Mr. Berlusconi has faced numerous trials on allegations of corruption, tax evasion, and other corporate malpractice, but this is the first time that he has been indicted for conduct in his private life.
Investigators allege that he paid for sex with Karima el-Mahroug, a 17-year-old runaway who was working as a nightclub dancer and, prosecutors allege, a prostitute when the encounters took place last year.
They accuse Berlusconi of abusing his powers as prime minister by telephoning a police station in Milan last May and pressuring officers to release Ms. Mahroug, whose stage name is "Ruby the Heartbreaker," on an unrelated theft charge. He claimed she was the granddaughter of Egypt’s recently deposed president, Hosni Mubarak.
Paying for sex with a prostitute who is under 18 is an offense under Italian law that carries a maximum penalty of three years in jail. The abuse of office charge carries a prison term of up to 12 years.
Berlusconi, who will be tried by three female judges, claims the allegations are baseless and that he is the victim of a witch hunt by a biased judiciary that is acting in league with the center-left opposition.
He will not be obliged to attend the trial in person or to testify, according to his lawyers.
"It is clear that the left wing, beaten in the elections and in Parliament, is trying to use justice" to attack the prime minister, said Daniele Capezzone, a spokesman for Berlusconi's People of Freedom party. "They won't succeed."
Berlusconi now faces four trials in the coming months – three others that had been suspended under an immunity law have now been reactivated after Italy's Constitutional Court challenged the legislation.
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Italian women took part in demonstrations across Italy calling for the prime minister’s resignation and accusing him of denigrating women with a culture of sexual exploitation, both in his private life and on the television channels he owns.
Berlusconi responded Monday by saying that he had always shown the “greatest respect” for women and had tried to make his female supporters feel “special."
Telephone conversations intercepted by investigators have painted a lurid picture of so-called “bunga bunga” parties at Berlusconi’s mansion in Milan, with young women cavorting half-naked and dressing up in sexy police and nurse’s uniforms.
Gianfranco Fini, who was part of Berlusconi’s government until the pair had a bitter falling out last year, said the premier had made Italy “the laughing stock of the Western world” with his behavior.