A judge in Milan today ordered Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to stand trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage girl and abuse of office.
A statement issued from the office of Judge Cristina Di Censo set a trial date of April 6.
Though Berlusconi will not have to appear before the court in person, the ruling was a blow to the 74-year-old prime minister, who has been struggling to recover from a party split which cost him a secure majority in parliament.
Politically Motivated Judges?
Berlusconi, a billionaire businessman turned politician, has denied doing anything illegal in the case. He says he was targeted by politically motivated judges backed by the political left who are determined to bring him down.
Last week, he said any trial would be a "false" one, "these accusations are completely without any proof, and everyone has seen that they are just waging a negative media campaign."
Italy's constitutional court last month removed the automatic immunity from trial that Berlusconi had previously enjoyed. The prime minister is also due to face trial in three unrelated embezzlement and fraud cases in the coming weeks.
Prosecutors accuse Berlusconi of paying for sex with a nightclub belly dancer when she was under 18, which is against the law in Italy.
They also accuse him of improperly using the powers of his office to pressure police to have the then 17-year-old girl released from custody over theft allegations.
Berlusconi has dismissed the investigation against him as "disgusting and disgraceful." But he has come under pressure from groups including the Vatican and Italy's main business lobby, Confindustria. Opinion poll research shows that his image has suffered.
Women Demonstrate Against Him
On February 13, tens of thousands of women across the country rallied against Berlusconi and the sex scandals.
In a bid to shore up his precarious majority in parliament, Berlusconi has been working hard in recent weeks to recruit deputies from smaller splinter parties. He has rejected calls to resign.
Outside of the tribunal today, residents of Milan said Berlusconi now needs to represent his case in front of the court. Milan resident Mario Brambilla said any judgment should be reserved until the trial, "We must bear in mind that it is a process with three different steps. Therefore, the judgment has to be suspended until the end of the process, not before it's begun or while it's on-going."
Italian newspapers have been less patient -- using leaked materials from investigators' wiretaps to report accounts of lavish dinner parties involving after-dinner sex sessions.
Those reports allege the Italian prime minister hosted would-be starlets to strip and cavort for Berlusconi and his friends -- and that the women left with bundles of cash and jewelry.
written by Ron Synowitz, with contributions from agency reports