Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is shown after delivering an… (Filippo Monteforte / AFP…)
Reporting from London — A judge Tuesday ordered Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to stand trial on charges that he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl, then abused his authority by trying to get her released from custody after police picked her up on suspicion of stealing.
It was a major setback for the 74-year-old premier, whose personal entanglements for months have overshadowed the business of governing Italy. Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing and says there is a plot by left-wing judges and his political foes to force him from office.
Whether the scandal will cost him his job as prime minister remains unclear. Despite a nonstop stream of controversies surrounding both his business dealings and personal life, Berlusconi has managed to stay in power owing to a fragmented opposition, the loyalty of his proteges in the parliament and his control of most of Italy's commercial television.
Members of Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom party came to his defense Tuesday.
"The Italian judiciary, through a risible investigation, is trying to overturn the democratic order," said Maurizio Lupi, a lawmaker and top party official. "The [judicial] offensive against the prime minister has no precedent either in Italy or in the world."
But opposition leaders called for Berlusconi's resignation and immediate elections.
"Berlusconi should defend himself before the [court] as do all citizens who have nothing to hide," said Anna Finocchiaro, leader of the Democratic Party in the Senate. "But for his sake and that of the nation's dignity he should first resign."
The judge, Cristina Di Censo, acting on hundreds of pages of documents submitted by prosecutors in Milan, ruled that there was sufficient evidence to skip a preliminary hearing and proceed directly to trial, to begin April 6.
Berlusconi's business practices are already the subject of three other court proceedings; this will be the first to center on his personal behavior.
A self-made billionaire-turned-politician, he will not be required to appear in court himself, leaving his team of lawyers to combat charges that he paid to have sex with Karima El Mahroug, a teenage dancer who used the stage name Ruby Rubacuori, or Ruby Heart-Stealer.
Although the age of consent is 14 and prostitution in general is not illegal in Italy, paying for sex with a minor is considered a crime.
Mahroug, who has since turned 18, was a regular attendee of Berlusconi's notorious private parties, which guests have described in interviews and in wiretapped conversations as full of prostitutes. The "bunga bunga" parties routinely featured stripteases and erotic games, attendees said.
Both Berlusconi and Mahroug deny that they had sex. But Mahroug has said that Berlusconi gave her jewelry and about $9,500 in cash.
Prosecutors allege that in May when Mahroug was arrested in Milan on suspicion of theft in an unrelated incident, Berlusconi's office applied undue pressure on the police to release her from custody, claiming that she was a relative of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and that her detention could cause a diplomatic confrontation.
Prosecutors accuse Berlusconi of intervening to prevent his relationship with Mahroug from coming to light. Berlusconi says he stepped in merely out of compassion for a young woman in a tough spot.
His lawyers insist that prosecutors in Milan have no jurisdiction over a case involving the prime minister. Berlusconi's defense team is also expected to argue that Mahroug is older than her official documents state.
The ruling Tuesday was handed down two days after hundreds of thousands of women staged protests against Berlusconi in cities across Italy. They accused him of degrading women and reinforcing the sexism prevalent in Italian society.
After the decision was released, one of Berlusconi's attorneys, Piero Longo, said, "We expected nothing different," apparently alluding to the fact that the judge, Di Censo, is a woman. All three judges who will hear the trial are women.
Berlusconi denies that he insults women's dignity. He has said that, on the contrary, he tries to make women feel "special" and that loving women is preferable to being gay.
Times staff writer Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.