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Italian PM to stand trial on 'sex with minor' charge

Silvio Berlusconi faces further pressure to resign after he is accused of paying for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan girl and attempting to cover it up.

Silvio Berlusconi's luck may have finally run out.
Silvio Berlusconi's luck may have finally run out.

MILAN // An Italian judge yesterday ordered Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, to stand trial on charges he paid for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan girl and attempted to cover it up.

Mr Berlusconi has stood trial on a number of business-related charges, but this is the first time the 74-year-old billionaire businessman is being tried for personal conduct. Mr Berlusconi has denied wrongdoing, accusing the prosecutors of seeking to oust him from power.

Judge Cristina Di Censo handed down the indictment with a terse statement. The trial is to begin on April 6, and will be heard by a panel of three judges, all of them women.

The decision means Ms Di Censo believes there is sufficient evidence to subject Mr Berlusconi to an immediate trial, as has been requested by prosecutors.

The sped-up procedure skips the preliminary hearing stage and is ordered in cases of overwhelming evidence.

Paying for sex with a prostitute is not a crime in Italy, unless the prostitute is under 18.

Mr Berlusconi has called the accusations "groundless" and dismissed the case as a "farce".

But the indictment adds to Mr Berlusconi's troubles at a time when he is politically vulnerable after a split with an ex-ally, and will increase pressure on him to resign, a possibility he has repeatedly rejected.

"We didn't expect anything different," one of Mr Berlusconi's attorneys, Piero Longo, was quoted as saying.

Prosecutors allege Mr Berlusconi paid for sex with the Moroccan girl, nicknamed Ruby, then used his influence to get her out of police custody when she was detained for the unrelated suspected theft of US$4,103 (Dh15,000). They allege that Mr Berlusconi feared her relationship to him would be revealed.

Both Mr Berlusconi and Ruby have denied having sexual relations, although she has said Mr Berlusconi gave her $9,550 on their first meeting.

The child prostitution charge carries a possible prison sentence of six months to three years. The abuse of influence charge, which experts say is more dangerous for Mr Berlusconi, carries a possible sentence of four to 12 years.

The trial brings to four the number of judicial cases Mr Berlusconi is currently battling. They will all be starting or resuming in coming weeks, after Italy's highest-court recently watered down an immunity bill his government had passed to suspend the trials.

Mr Berlusconi is charged in a tax-fraud case relating to his Mediaset media empire, and charged with bribery in another case. Another tax fraud case will continue with a preliminary hearing next month.

Mr Berlusconi has always denied wrongdoing in the many cases involving his media holdings, and has either been acquitted or seen the statute of limitations expire - something that is considered likely in two of the trials now under way.

He has long contended he is the victim of a political vendetta orchestrated by what he says are left-leaning prosecutors.