Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been sent to trial on charges that he allegedly paid to have sex with an underage prostitute and used his position to have her released from police detention when she was picked up for theft.
Milan Judge Cristina Di Censo allowed a request by prosecutors to have Berlusconi tried immediately, in a procedure that skips a preliminary hearing. She set the first hearing for April 6.
The charges against Berlusconi revolve around his relationship with a young Moroccan dancer, Karima El Mahroug, who goes by the stage name of Ruby Rubacuore – Ruby the Heartstealer.
Ruby, now 18, is alleged to have participated in "bunga-bunga" parties at Berlusconi's residence numerous times last year when she was underage, and to have accepted money in exchange for sex.
Ruby told investigators that she attended parties at the prime minister's house and accepted money and other gifts from him, but denies they had sex. Berlusconi, a 74-year-old billionaire, also denies he had sex with Ruby or with any of the young women Berlusconi invited to parties at his various residences in Italy.
News of Berlusconi's bunga-bunga parties with harems of women has been fuel for Italian papers for months, and other women have come forward with stories of lavish dinners replete with expensive gifts that for some ended with sexual encounters with the premier, they claim.
The difference this time is that Ruby was only 17 when she attended the parties and having sex with an underage prostitute carries a jail term of up to three years. The abuse of office charge carries a possible sentence of four to 12 years.
Rubygate, as the story has become known in Italy, came to the attention of prosecutors last May when Berlusconi called a Milan police office asking them to release Ruby, who had been picked up for allegedly stealing from a friend. Berlusconi told police officers that Ruby was the niece of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which he says is what Ruby told him. Ruby says she also told Berlusconi she was 23.
Being a minor, and a runaway, Ruby should have been placed in the care of social services. Instead, on Berlusconi's request she was released into the custody of a one-time showgirl, Nicole Minetti, who is also Berlusconi's former dental hygienist and now a regional councillor for the area around Milan.
Berlusconi says he made the phone call to avoid a diplomatic incident, but prosecutors maintain that it was an abuse of his power.
Minetti is also under investigation for allegedly exploiting underage prostitution, along with two friends of Berlusconi – a TV anchor for one of his television stations he owns and a talent scout - for providing girls for Berlusconi's parties. A request for their indictment is expected early next week.
Judge Di Censo Tuesday decided today that the body of evidence against Berlusconi was sufficient to warrant an immediate trial. The evidence includes questioning of Ruby, Minetti, and many others as well as hours of tapped phone conversations in which girls invited to Berlusconi's home described wild sexy parties.
A panel of three women judges will preside over Berlusconi's case, the Milan court announced.
Berlusconi is not new to legal troubles, but this is the first time he is being tried for his personal conduct.