His center-right government has been shaken by weeks of scandal and reports of his personal behavior, but now Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister will face a criminal court in Milan on April 6th, as announced by the chief judge’s office at the Milan court.
The embattled, often arrogant Italian premier has no obligation to appear in person before the three judge panel that day. Not even a criminal prosecution will legally prevent him from continuing to hold office throughout the trial, which could take many years before there’s a conviction.
He has retained the loyalty of his political party throughout all his legal cases and political attacks from liberals and conservatives alike, which is no surprise because he helped set up many of his key people using the fortune he made in business.
While his lawyers don’t expect any different outcome than he’s experienced in past, the court’s decision to go to trial was a blow to the 74 year old who is facing growing public dissatisfaction with his behavior, now affecting his party’s slim majority in the Italian Parliament.
Revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East must be worrying him too, as demonstrations against him are part of a daily routine.
The media has been dominated by the alleged affair, resulting from a teenaged nightclub dancer, Karima ed Mahroug (of Moroccan ancestry), who performs under the stage name “Ruby”. Lately, that stage name has become a household word throughout the Italian peninsula and other areas of Europe.
Prosecutors claim they have abundant evidence that the Premier paid el Mahroug for sex at a time when she was only 17 years old, which is an offense in Italy. Reports say he also telephoned police, pressuring officers to release her after detention on allegations of theft.
“Ruby” denies having engaged in any sexual activity with Berlusconi, though she admits receiving 7,000 euros after a party at his residence near Milan. Though prostitution is legal in Italy, the parties must be over 18.
He claims he believed the girl to be of Egyptian descent, and related to Hosni Mubarak (the now resigned President of Egypt). Seeking to avoid a potential diplomatic incident, he intervened with police.
A billionaire businessman who turned to politics in his later years, Berlusconi has denied any illegal activities in the matter and claims this is a politically motivated group of judges on the left, and part of an effort to remove him from office.
He withdrew from a news conference Tuesday on news of a wave of refugees arriving in Sicily from revolution embattled Tunisia.
Traditionally, Italian premiers have enjoyed immunity from trial, but a special constitutional court ruled last month to remove such protections that he’s previously used to protect himself. He also faces trial on three other charges, including embezzlement and fraud.
But Tuesday’s decision may be only one step in a lengthy legal battle, of which many have marked Berlusconi’s career.
Lawyers are arguing that the case, which involves charges of abuse of power as well as sexual solicitation for prostitution should be held before a special tribunal for ministers, and not by the courts. They are allowed 30 days to appeal and avoid a preliminary hearing and go directly to trial.
Berlusconi’s legal problems added further complications to normally complex Italian politics that have been entangled by a split in his political party in the past year.
His government barely survived a no-confidence vote in parliament in December. Berlusconi has been slowly rebuilding support by winning over deputies (representatives) from smaller centrist parties and splinter groups.
The government survived a no-confidence motion in parliament in December by a small margin. Since then, however, Berlusconi has gradually built up support by winning over deputies from smaller centrist parties and splinter formations.
Widespread speculation in Italy says that there will be early elections, perhaps as soon as a few months, though the premier said he has enough support to let him complete his full term, ending in 2013.
Thousands of Italian women demonstrated against him Sunday, while opposition leaders continue to call on him to resign and turn over the reigns of government to another centrist or hold elections soon.
Like the political turmoil in Egypt, the political climate in Italy must be worrying other leaders, particularly the American president, Barack Obama, who relies heavily on Berlusconi for support in military actions and European political matters.