A Milan judge yesterday ordered the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to stand trial in April on charges of paying for sex with an underage Moroccan girl and abusing his office to cover up their relationship.
The indictment takes Mr Berlusconi's long-running battle with the Italian justice system into dark new territory, with the investigating justice, Cristina Di Censo, declaring a fast-track trial was permissible because there was "clear evidence of abuse of office and sex with a minor". Usually in such cases lengthy committal proceedings would take place first.
There was no immediate comment from Mr Berlusconi, but the premier has consistently denied any wrong-doing and claims he is the victim of a "witch-hunt" against him by left-wing magistrates.
He has dodged a number of corruption trials and no-confidence votes in his time in power, but the trial beginning April 6 represents his biggest challenge so far, and carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
The public prosecutor who headed the investigation into the premier's alleged sexual misconduct, Edmondo Bruti Liberati, limited himself to just a few words. "Now we go to court," he said with a smile on his face. The opposition called for Mr Berlusconi's immediate resignation.
The opposition newspaper La Repubblica, which has led the media investigation into his private life, said Mr Berlusconi had gained the dubious distinction of being the first prime minister in history to be indicted on prostitution-related offences while in office.
However, Mr Berlusconi's spokesman, Carlo Giovanardi, said: "Berlusconi is only a victim of an evil system which seeks to criminalise whoever leads moderates who do not wish to bow down to the left."
The premier's legal team had argued that the case should be referred to a special Rome court – il Tribunale dei Ministri, designed to try ministers for alleged crimes committed while carrying out their duties – and away from his perceived nemeses, the magistrates of Milan.
The potential for a constitutional showdown was underlined by comments from Mr Berlusconi's justice minister, Angelino Alfano. He said the Milan judge's decision threatened "the sovereignty and independence of parliament". Mr Berlusconi's supporters have argued that the case still amounted to parliamentary business after the lower house blocked the prosecutor's request for the offices of the Prime Minister's accountant to be searched. Mr Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, has said he would appeal the Milan judge's decision on this basis.
Mr Berlusconi, 74, will be judged by three female judges: Carmen D'Elia, Orsola De Cristofaro and Giulia Turri. Only two days earlier, hundreds of thousands of Italian women marched in protest at what they saw as the premier's sexism and misogyny. He claimed the marchers were politically motivated.
The judges must decide whether Mr Berlusconi paid to have sex with Karima el-Mahroug during a party at his mansion near Milan last May, when the Moroccan woman was only 17 years old. In Italy, sex with a prostitute younger than 18 is punishable with three years in jail. She has admitted receiving €7,000 from the premier, but denies having had sex with him.
Milan prosecutors also say that wiretaps show the Prime Minister telephoned Milan police headquarters last October and said that Ms el-Mahroug was the granddaughter of the then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The prosecutors allege the premier intervened after she was accused of theft, and lied and abused his powers to have her released so the nature of their relationship would not become public. Conviction on this charge could carry a 12-year sentence.
Opposition leader Pier Luigi Bersani of the Democratic Party called for the premier's immediate resignation. He said: "We call on him to go because the situation is unsustainable."
Within the next four weeks, three other trials involving Mr Berlusconi are due to resume or begin.
In one, he is charged with bribery; the other two involve alleged tax-related offences.
Critics say that the premier is becoming increasingly bogged down in a legal quagmire, and with a decimated parliamentary majority, Mr Berlusconi's ability to govern has been impeded.
Only one law has been passed since the beginning of the year. And the last cabinet meeting lasted only five minutes.
The female judges
Considered an expert judge, Ms Turri will lead the panel. In 2009, she presided over a trial in which two managers at Google were acquitted of tax evasion charges. Last July, she ordered house arrests as part of the probe into cocaine use and trafficking at top Milan nightclubs.
Ms D'Elia has tried several high-profile cases, including a corruption case against senior Milan town hall officials and another in which she sentenced lawyer-turned-politician Cesare Previti to five-and-a-half years in jail for bribing Rome judges while he was on the payroll of Prime Minister Berlusconi.
Orsola De Cristofaro
Ms De Cristofaro, who has worked both as a state prosecutor and as a preliminary investigations judge, is the least well-known of the three. Last year, she jailed 11 health workers in Milan for providing unnecessary surgery to earn extra cash at the Santa Rita "hospital of horrors".
Timeline: How Berlusconi's fortunes have changed
1994 Media and construction tycoon Silvio Berlusconi wins the first of three general elections. Sworn in as Prime Minister in March, by November he is under investigation for corruption.
1997 Berlusconi is sentenced to 16 months in jail for false accounting involving 10bn lire during his buyout of the Medusa cinema company, and 33 months for bribing financial police in a separate case. He is acquitted of both charges on appeal.
1998 Berlusconi is sentenced to 28 months in prison for illegally financing the Italian Socialist Party through an offshore company, but the case is later dropped. He also receives a jail term for bribing a judge during the Fininvest buyout of a publishing company, but the case runs out of time under Italy's statute of limitations.
2002 Italian parliament relaxes laws on false accounting.
2008 After defeat at the polls in 2006, Berlusconi is re-elected. His cabinet provides him with temporary immunity from prosecution but the move to make this permanent is ruled out by a constitutional court in 2009.
2009 The Prime Minister is accused of inappropriately attending the 18th birthday party of lingerie model Noemi Letizia. His wife of 19 years, Veronica Lario, announces she is filing for divorce. Former escort Patrizia d'Addario claims she was paid to attend Mr Berlusconi's private parties.
2010 It emerges that a 17-year-old dancer, Karima El Mahroug, held by Italian police on charges of theft, was released after a call from Berlusconi.
2011 He is indicted to stand trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute (El Mahroug) and abusing his power by seeking her release from custody in 2009. Both parties deny the charges.
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