Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is to stand trial on charges of abuse of power and paying underage prostitutes for sex — a crime in Italy despite the fact that prostitution is legal and the age of consent is 14. The trial is scheduled to open on April 6 according to a statement released by the judiciary. The Prime Minister will be tried by a bench of three woman judges.
Mr. Berlusconi, who on Monday mocked weekend protests by over a million women against his portrayal of women, failed to show up for a press conference in Sicily after the judge announced her decision. He was scheduled to address the media on a massive influx of Tunisian immigrants into southern Italy.
On the eve of the court ruling, a defiant Mr. Berlusconi had declared he would not resign. However, the political landscape appears to have dramatically altered since the announcement of his trial and fresh elections now cannot be ruled out.
President Giorgio Napolitano said on Tuesday that the tussle between the country's executive and its judiciary was “cause for concern”. The President has the powers to dissolve Parliament and order a fresh poll.
Justice Christina Di Censo's ruling came weeks after prosecutors said they were investigating the Prime Minister on charges that he paid Karima El Mahroug, a nightclub dancer nicknamed Ruby, for sex before she turned 18 and abused his powers by forcing the police to release her when she was detained in May for theft. Lurid details of the 74-year-old PM's sexual antics have been leaked to the press by sources close to the investigation, now almost a year old.
Berlusconi supporters have alleged that the judge's ruling is not impartial and that she has been influenced by the rising wave of discontent among women, led by “left-wing feminist demonstrators”. In Italy, though prostitution is legal and the age of consent is 14, it is still illegal to buy sex from a person less than 18 years old. If convicted, Mr. Berlusconi could face three years in prison, as well as up to 12 years for abuse of power.
Mr. Berlusconi's trial will begin on April 6 and stretch over three weeks. It was fast-tracked by Italy's Constitutional Court after a panel of judges removed his immunity from criminal charges, granted by Parliament last year.
It is not surprising that Mr. Berlusconi appears to have been suddenly silenced or that he failed to make a scheduled public appearance. The timing of the trial is particularly bad for him. He narrowly won a confidence vote in Parliament after one of his coalition partners, Gianfranco Fini, the Speaker of the House and leader of the Future and Freedom party, quit the three-member ruling coalition. And there is evidence that despite the support he continues to enjoy, his popularity is steadily diminishing.
The AFP news agency reported that Mr Berlusconi used a block of apartments in one of his own developments to house the young women who participated in his lavish parties, paying their rent and even medical bills and schooling for children, apparently in return for their favours. Mr. Berlusconi has always denied the allegations, insisting in public and on TV as late as last month that his parties were “elegant, tranquil” affairs conducted always within the boundaries of “good taste”.
This is not the first time that Mr. Berlusconi has faced the courts, though in the past the charges have related to his business dealings. If this legal action actually unfolds, it will be the first time that his personal conduct is tested in public.