Is Berlusconi heading for the dock?

With a criminal trial looming, Michael Day examines the case against the Italian Prime Minister
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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi's ongoing battle with the Italian justice system has reached uncharted territory with magistrates calling for him to stand immediate trial on sex and corruption charges.

The billionaire, 74, who has faced dozens of indictments but always survived, could be in the dock by Easter charged with having sex with an under-age belly dancer named Ruby and abusing his office to cover it up.

"For the first time he'll be on trial for something straightforward and lurid: under-age sex and/or covering it up, and something that happened recently, not some hoary old probe into accounting misdemeanours," said Professor James Walston of the American University in Rome.

Mr Berlusconi said: "The only aim of the inquiry is to defame me in the media. I shall attempt to sue the state."

The prosecutors' evidence includes dozens of interviews and hundreds of hours of wiretaps. The examining judge, Cristina Di Censo, has a week or so to decide on the prosecutors' request for a fast-track trial rather than a process that could take months before reaching trial.

Three other trials on tax fraud or corruption are pending and rumours of a possible indictment on mafia association persist. The Prime Minister denies wrongdoing. There is a sense of urgency about the premier's legal defence team, which is seeking to keep Mr Berlusconi out of court. Its latest claim is that the woman in question is older than she claims.

"It's clear that Berlusconi is never going to be free from the legal threat. The only question is whether he fights them from Rome or from exile in Antigua," said Professor Walston.

The Rubygate case

Mr Berlusconi allegedly paid for sex with the Moroccan Karima el-Mahroug, known as Ruby, at a party at his mansion, near Milan, in May last year when she was 17. In Italy sex with a prostitute under 18 is punishable with three years in jail. The Prime Minister is said to have telephoned Milan police headquarters last October and lied by saying that Ruby was the granddaughter of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, when she was held on suspected theft, to prevent their relationship becoming public. Conviction could result in a 12-year sentence.



Bribery

In one of the two trials set to resume on 11 March, following the rejection of his ministerial immunity by the Constitutional Court, Mr Berlusconi is accused of bribing the lawyer David Mills, estranged husband of the former minister Tessa Jowell, in 1999 with $600,000 to lie under oath. Mr Mills was sentenced in February 2009 to four and a half years in jail for accepting a bribe from Mr Berlusconi. He appealed twice, and his conviction was eventually quashed in February last year when prosecutors' time ran out.



Tax fraud

Mr Berlusconi faces charges of tax fraud in purchasing film rights for his television company, Mediaset. Milan magistrates claim that since the 1980s, Mr Berlusconi's holding company, Fininvest, and subsequently his broadcast group, Mediaset, have registered inflated costs for the purchase of US film rights, in order to divert millions of euros to slush funds in Switzerland and Hong Kong. The trial resumes on 28 February, but time could run out under either the statute of limitations or because of new plans by Mr Berlusconi's justice minister, Angelino Alfano, to slash maximum trial lengths to two years.



Drugs, parties and the Mob

An investigation continues in Naples, centred on Sara Tommasi, a young woman who attended Mr Berlusconi's parties. She has been linked to a prostitution ring run by the Naples mafia. The starlet took part in evenings at the Prime Minster's residences, including one attended last April by the Russian premier, Vladimir Putin. On wiretaps she is heard suggesting that the man accused of rounding up call girls for Mr Berlusconi's soirées spikes the drinks of women who attend them.



Parliamentary crisis

Mr Berlusconi's tottering government has seen its majority slashed to single figures owing to a rash of defections. The premier insists it will see out its whole mandate until 2013, but his powerful coalition ally, the Northern League, could pull the plug at any time if it fails to get its controversial demand for greater powers for city governments to control their own tax and spending.

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