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Defiant Berlusconi ‘unworried’ by sex trial

February 15, 2011

By Guy Dinmore in Rome and Rachel Sanderson in Milan, published: February 15 2011

Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister, was defiant on Wednesday in his first public comments since a judge ordered him to stand trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of office.

The prime minister told reporters: “For love of country I won’t talk about it. Suffice it to say that I am not worried in the least.” He said he expected to broaden his parliamentary majority in coming days and dismissed talk of an early election in the wake of the scandal, saying his ruling coalition was solid and would see out its term until scheduled elections in 2013.

On Tuesday a Milan examining judge accepted a request from prosecutors, who said they had sufficient evidence concerning a “significant” number of prostitutes, to proceed to an immediate trial of the 74-year-old prime minister without holding a preliminary hearing. The case will begin on April 6.

The charges carry a maximum combined 15-year jail term. A panel of three women judges will preside over the trial.

Although the prime minister does not need to face the court in person, the prospect of prolonged exposure to damaging charges of such a personal nature risks further undermining his weakened government. Only three votes saved him from parliamentary defeat in December. Senior government officials accused the judiciary of attacking “democracy” and rejected calls by opposition leaders for Mr Berlusconi to resign. Hundreds of thousands of Italians rallied against the government on Sunday.

“Italy needs a government that governs. Italy must quickly recover its international credibility,” Dario Franceschini, of the opposition Democratic party, told parliament.

Karima El Mahroug, a dancer known as “Ruby” alleged to have joined erotic “bunga bunga” parties last year aged 17, denies having had sex with the prime minister. Mr Berlusconi says he has never paid for sex and also denies pressing a Milan police chief to free the teenager from detention last May. He explained he wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident in believing her to be the niece of Hosni Mubarak, then president of Egypt.

Mr Berlusconi met his lawyers after rushing back to Rome from Sicily, where he had been dealing with an influx of Tunisian migrants. Angelino Alfano, justice minister, challenged the competency of the Milan court to try the case and accused the judge of going against the “sovereignty” of parliament.

Two laws designed to suspend legal proceedings against Mr Berlusconi have been challenged by the Constitutional Court, meaning Mr Berlusconi also faces the resumption within weeks of two trials involving his Mediaset media empire on charges of tax fraud and corruption, which he denies.

Portraying himself as the victim of leftist magistrates determined to oust him, Mr Berlusconi is preparing legislation that would cancel out those two trials. In the case of Rubygate, as the latest scandal is known in Italy, his lawyers can try to drag out the trial by challenging the competency of the court.

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