Berlusconi told to face sex trial

Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was today ordered to stand trial on charges he paid for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan girl then tried to cover it up.





Mr Berlusconi has already stood trial 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 made the ruling in Milan with a terse statement. The trial is to begin April 6, and will be heard by a panel of three judges, all women.



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



The accelerated 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, but it is if the prostitute is under 18.



Mr Berlusconi has called the accusations "groundless" and dismissed the case as a "farce." But the charged adds to his troubles at a time when the three-time premier is politically vulnerable following a split with an ex-ally, and will increase pressure on him to resign - a possibility he has repeatedly rejected.



Prosecutors allege Mr Berlusconi paid for sex with 17-year-old Moroccan Karima el Mahroug, who has since turned 18, and then used his influence to get her out of police custody when she was detained for suspected theft, fearing her relationship to him would be revealed.



Ms el Mahroug, nicknamed Ruby the Heartstealer, was ultimately released into the custody of a Berlusconi aide who also is under investigation.



Both Mr Berlusconi and Ruby have denied having sex, although she has said gave her 7,000 euros (£5,900) 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, but pertaining to more recent events than the ongoing Mediaset trial, 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 claimed he is the victim of a political vendetta orchestrated by what he says are left-wing prosecutors.

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