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Italy's Berlusconi Indicted in Prostitution Probe

 

MILAN -- His penchant for younger women has cost Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi his wife, and now may cost him what he cherishes most: power.

The 74-year-old premier was ordered Tuesday to stand trial on charges he paid a 17-year-old Moroccan girl for sex, and then used his influence to cover it up -- an offense, if proven, that could see him barred permanently from public office.

The premier has called the accusations "groundless" and dismissed the case as a "farce," accusing prosecutors of seeking to oust him from power. He did not comment Tuesday, skipping a planned appearance in Sicily and meeting with his lawyer in Rome.

Unlike other legal proceedings that involve old business in the private sector of his Mediaset empire, these charges allege personal misconduct while serving as the head of government. Besides fending off four simultaneous legal challenges in Milan, a weakened Berlusconi is going to have to keep unruly coalition partners happy, while keeping up the image of his country -- badly damaged by his own scandal -- on the international stage.

Prosecutors have already relayed more than 700-pages of wiretap conversations describing raucous behavior that would draw censure at most fraternity houses: sex-fueled parties attended by scantily clad women, sometimes dressed as nurses or police officers.

The indictment allege 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 $4,103. They allege that Berlusconi called police the night of May 27-28 because he feared that her relationship to him would be revealed.

So far Italians have been forgiving, with Berlusconi's popularity damaged by the scandal but not demolished. But having such details aired in a courtroom and not just on newspaper pages, observers say, could change the tide against Berlusconi.

"If you start to hear something (that) is really embarrassing and difficult to handle, I think that could hurt the image of Berlusconi and his position as prime minister," said Franco Pavoncello, a political analyst at John Cabot University.

Berlusconi's trial for underage prostitution and abuse of influence in front of a three-woman panel of judges begins April 6. 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 Berlusconi, carries a possible sentence of four to 12 years.

If convicted of the latter charge and sentenced to more than five years, Berlusconi also would be barred from ever again holding public office.

Both the 74-year-old premier and the now 18-year-old Moroccan nightclub dancer deny having had sex together. Ruby, in a TV interview on a Mediaset channel, said Berlusconi gave her $9,000 the evening they met, and later jewelry.

The trial, which will follow the resumption of three other criminal cases involving his business dealings, will create both a legal morass for the premier, and a judicial juggling act as panels seek to schedule hearings amid Berlusconi's commitments as head of government.

While defendants are not required to attend trials in Italy, Berlusconi's defense has often invoked his willingness to do so to seek dates where official duties would not prevent his attendance. Still, he has rarely showed up in court.

Judge Cristina Di Censo's issued a terse five-line statement confirming the indictments. The decision allows for a speedy trial, skipping the preliminary hearing phase which alone can take nearly a year, and affirms prosecutors' contention that the crimes are connected, that they were not committed in the course of his duties.

The trial itself will take months, if not years, given the difficulty in scheduling court appearances.

Berlusconi's supporters had asked that jurisdiction be transferred to a special body, called Tribunal of Ministers, which deals with offenses committed by public officials in the execution of their duties. They argue that Berlusconi called the Milan police to release Ruby on grounds he was trying to avert a diplomatic incident, believing she was the niece of recently ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

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

Pierluigi Bersani, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, called for Berlusconi's resignation, demanding early elections. "We don't want Italy to be drifting," Bersani said.

A decision to dissolve parliament and hold new elections rests with President Giorgio Napolitano. He expressed concerns over the bitter conflict between the premier and the judiciary when the two met over the weekend.

While Italian politics is very polarized, Italians on the whole so far have been tolerant of Berlusconi's antics and gaffes, from cavorting with attractive young women to commenting on Barack Obama's skin tone.

Still, there are signs of discontent, if not the kind of revolution sweeping the Mediterranean's southern rim: More than 1 million women took to the streets in weekend protests in a show of dignity aimed against what they see as denigrating treatment of women.

Ruby's fame, in the meantime, has grown. She has been videotaped at night clubs, and is pictured in black lingerie promoting a book in a new ad.

Berlusconi has unashamedly flouted his love of beautiful women -- and even lashing out at women he considers homely, insulting opposition leader Rosy Bindi as being "more beautiful than intelligent."

When estranged wife Veronica Lario announced her intention to divorce Berlusconi in 2009, she cited his involvement with another young women and promotion of starlets to lawmakers. She also issued a plea to his friends to help him, saying "My husband is sick."

It also remains to be seen how the trial affects his role as Italy's chief statesman.

Passion for female company is one he shares with ally Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who entertains hundreds of young Italian women at his traveling tent when he visits Italy. But one that is unlikely to endear him fellow European leaders, many of whom would have been unable to politically survive even just the allegations that have befallen Berlusconi.

A masterful politician and businessman, Berlusconi has proven himself a champion at repelling previous legal challenges, many of which have ended with the expiration of the statute of limitations. He recently survived challenges in parliament, too, barely winning two back-to-back confidence votes in December.

Later this month, Berlusconi's trial on tax fraud relating to the 1999 purchase of TV rights resumes, followed quickly by another accusing him of paying a witness to lie in court. Another tax fraud case, but pertaining to events in 2007, will continue with a preliminary hearing next month.

To survive to the end of his third stint in 2013, Berlusconi will now find himself more beholden than ever to the Northern League. The populist party and government ally recently threatened to bolt to press passage of new rules giving towns and cities more power of taxation, part of their push to disempower Rome and give more power to the regions.

In an irony, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, of the Northern League, is listed as one of the offended parties in the indictment, because police under his direct command were pressured to release Ruby.