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Italy's Berlusconi to stand trial in April

Italy's Berlusconi to stand trial in April
United States President George W. Bush meets Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy in the Oval Office of the White House on February 28, 2006. (UPI Photo/Ron Sachs/POOL) | License Photo

ROME, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is to stand trial April 6 on charges that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute and abused his power when trying to cover it up.

Milan Judge Cristina Di Censo approved a request by prosecutors who said they had sufficient evidence to fast track the case against Berlusconi. His lawyers are expected to fight the decision.

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Berlusconi, 74, risks a maximum sentence of three years in prison for the underage prostitution charge and up to 12 years in prison for the abuse of office charge.

The prime minister, who denies all charges, was confronted with the news during a Tuesday trip to Sicily. He didn't comment but canceled a news conference and returned to Rome, British newspaper The Guardian reports.

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Dario Franceschini, the parliamentary leader of the opposition Democratic Party, called on Berlusconi to resign, echoing demands made during weekend protests in Italy.

An estimated 500,000 women took to the streets Sunday in Rome to protest what they said was Berlusconi's sexist behavior. It was the largest demonstration Italy has seen in years.

On Tuesday, it surfaced that all three judges named for the trial are women.

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The prosecution says Berlusconi paid for sex with a Moroccan nightclub dancer who calls herself "Ruby Heartstealer." The girl reportedly was 17 when she attended Berlusconi's parties.

Prosecutors say Berlusconi abused his power when he intervened on the dancer's behalf after she was arrested for alleged theft. Berlusconi called a Milan police station to free her, saying she was a relative of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The girl was released into the custody of a Berlusconi party ally.

Berlusconi has blasted the trial as purely politically motivated and intended to disrupt the government. The billionaire-turned-prime minister denies any wrongdoing, saying that he has never paid for sex and that he believed Ruby to be Mubarak's granddaughter and wanted to avoid a diplomatic scandal.

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Ruby has publicly denied having had sex with Berlusconi. She admitted to having presented herself as a 24-year-old when attending the prime minister's parties. Both acknowledge that Ruby was given money for being at the parties.

Berlusconi has had a rocky past year. He's been hit in the face with a replica of the Milan cathedral, labeled by U.S. diplomats in confidential cables as "feckless, vain and ineffective" and has had to face record-low popularity ratings.

He recently survived two no-confidence motions but still battles the loss of his majority in Parliament, which undermines his ability to push through reforms.

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Political analysts in Italy are also unhappy with Berlusconi's power struggle against the judiciary at a time when, they say, the country needs his complete focus to manage Italy's economic crisis.

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