MILAN – Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, who has dodged corruption trials and no-confidence votes with the skill of an Olympic athlete, faced a potentially fatal challenge to his power Tuesday when a judge ordered him to stand trial on prostitution and abuse of power charges.
Berlusconi is going on trial April 6 in Milan on charges that he paid for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan girl and then tried to cover it up. Berlusconi has been in court for a number of business-related charges, but this is the first time the 74-year-old billionaire businessman is being tried for personal conduct.
The premier has called the accusations "groundless" and dismissed the case as a "farce," accusing prosecutors of seeking to oust him from power.
Judge Cristina Di Censo handed down the indictment with a terse statement that showed she believes there is sufficient evidence to subject Berlusconi to an immediate trial, as prosecutors had requested. The speeded-up procedure, which is ordered in cases of overwhelming evidence, skips a preliminary hearing.
The trial will be heard by a panel of three judges, all of them women, all picked at random.
There was no immediate comment from Berlusconi. He skipped a news conference in Sicily about immigration and did not talk to reporters upon arriving back home in Rome.
"We didn't expect anything different," one of Berlusconi's attorneys, Piero Longo, was quoted as saying by the Affaritaliani website.
Still, the indictment just adds to his troubles. The three-time premier is politically vulnerable following a split with an ex-ally and the indictment will increase the pressure on him to resign — a possibility he has repeatedly rejected. On Sunday, tens of thousands of women rallied across Italy to denounce Berlusconi's conduct with young women, which they say degrades female dignity.
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. Berlusconi could be barred permanently from public office if convicted of abusing his influence and sentenced to more than five years on that.
The trial brings to four the number of judicial cases 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 sponsored to suspend the trials.
The prostitution and abuse of power trial could take months — even years — given the number of cases against Berlusconi at the moment. His lawyers could seek to annul hearing dates, claiming conflicts with state business.
The opposition pressed again Tuesday for Berlusconi to resign.
"Leave the premiership, let us not be the laughing stock of the world," said Alessandro Maran of the leading opposition Democratic Party. "Free Italy."
Prosecutors 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 euro3,000 ($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.
Berlusconi has not denied making the phone call, but said he did so because he wanted to avert a diplomatic incident. His supporters have claimed that Berlusconi believed Ruby to be the niece of Hosni Mubarak, the recently ousted Egyptian president.
Ruby was eventually released into the custody of a Berlusconi aide, who also is under investigation with two other confidantes.
Both Berlusconi and Ruby, who has since turned 18, have denied having sexual relations, although she has said Berlusconi gave her euro7,000 ($9,550) on their first meeting.
Paying for sex with a prostitute is not a crime in Italy, but it is if the prostitute is under 18.
Berlusconi does not have to attend the court hearings and is under no obligation to resign. In Italy, a defendant is not considered guilty until all levels of appeals have been exhausted, which takes several years.
Judges are assigned to each case through a computer system aimed at ensuring that the selection is random.
Berlusconi has made no secret of his admiration for beautiful women and made no apologies for it. But he said, in response to Sunday's demonstration, that he has always valued female workers in his companies and sought to promote their hard work.
Berlusconi is also charged in a tax fraud case relating to his Mediaset media empire, which alleges misconduct in 1999, and charged with bribery in another case. Another tax fraud case, pertaining to events from 2007, will continue with a preliminary hearing next month.
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.
Berlusconi was elected to his third-term as premier in 2008. The next scheduled elections are in 2013.
The decision to dissolve parliament and call new elections rests with the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano. He and Berlusconi met over the weekend, and Napolitano reportedly expressed concerns over the bitter conflict between the premier and the judiciary.