Berlusconi under pressure as judges set sex trial date

Berlusconi under pressure as judges set sex trial date

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faced a barrage of calls to step down Tuesday after judges ordered him to stand trial on charges of having sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of power, DPA reported

Ruling on a request from prosecutors, Judge Cristina Di Censo said there was sufficient evidence to order a fast-track trial for the embattled premier, who has seen his ratings plummet as a result of the ongoing scandal.

The trial, which is to open in Milan on the morning of April 6, is to be presided by three women judges: Carmen D'Elia, Orsolina De Cristofaro and Giulia Turri.

"We are asking for (Berlusconi's) resignations because the situation has become unsustainable," said Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the largest opposition party, the centre-left Partito Democratico.

"If we lived in a normal country," the judges' decision would "correspond to the immediate resignation of the prime minister," said Susanna Camusso, head of CGIL, Italy's largest trade union.

The charges against Berlusconi stem from allegations about the premier's liaison with a then 17-year-old Moroccan go-go dancer, Karima El Mahroug. The allegations first emerged in November.

The premier did not immediately comment on the judge's decision, but Justice Minister Angelino Alfano said Berlusconi would not resign.

"What about the presumption of innocence?" Alfano said, adding the premier was under no obligation to step down.

A lawyer representing the premier, Pietro Longo, said Tuesday's ruling had been "expected," since it came from the Milan judiciary, which Berlusconi has repeatedly accused of plotting to destroy his political career.

The evidence to be used in the trial has been garnered mostly from wire tappings which prosecutors say prove that Berlusconi paid El Mahroug, who uses the stage name Ruby Rubacuori (stealer of hearts), for sex.

Prosecutors also accuse the 74-year-old Berlusconi of having abused his position as prime minister when he admitted that he had intervened in May to release El Mahroug while she was held by police on suspicion of theft.

Berlusconi reportedly told police at the time that Ruby was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosny Mubarak.

If found guilty, Berlusconi faces a maximum combined prison sentence of 15 years.

The embattled media-magnate-turned politician has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to see out his term, which expires in 2013.

On Sunday, more than 1 million people turned out in squares across Italy to protest Berlusconi's alleged sex antics.

The pressure on Berlusconi to step down comes amid dissent within his conservative coalition and increasingly vocal criticism from the Catholic Church.

Shares in the Berlusconi-controlled Mediaset television company fell 1.34 per cent to 4.78 euros (6.45 dollars) on the news on the Milan stock exchange.

Similarly, Mediaset-controlled Spanish television company, Telecinco, was down 2.20 per cent to 9.52 euros per share on the Madrid stock exchange.

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