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.
Berlusconi to Be Tried for Allegedly Paying Teen Prostitute for Sex
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.
A number of court dates await him even before the Ruby trial: on March 11 for allegedly bribing a British lawyer for favorable testimony in a previous trial against him, and on Feb. 28 for having allegedly profited from inflated film sales profits by his Mediaset Company. He also has a preliminary hearing on March 5 on suspicion of tax fraud and embezzlement in relation to TV and film rights traded by another one of his companies.
Berlusconi has not commented on the Ruby indictment, but his lawyers said they had expected it. Berlusconi is unlikely to simply accept the charge and show up in court. Most likely his lawyers will take the case to the Constitutional Court in an effort to challenge the competence of the Milan courts in the case and move it to a Parliamentary court.
They can also plead "legitimate impediment" and annul hearing hearing dates by claiming state business prevents the prime minister from attending.
Berlusconi's Teen Sex Trial to Be Presided Over By Three Women Judges
The announcement of the indictment comes on the heels of large protests across Italy and abroad on Sunday by women calling for the prime minister to step down.
Organizers say one million people who were mostly women – 200,000 in Rome alone -- took to the streets in 200 cities across Italy and even abroad with slogans such as "keep your girls at home" or "I am not for sale."
Berlusconi denies his parties involve sex, and has called the investigation into him "disgusting" and a breach of his right to privacy. He has compared the prosecutors' use of phone taps to the methods used by police in cold-war Germany. He says the accusations against him are groundless, and that Milan prosecutors are leftists with a political intent to bring him down.