Indicted Berlusconi says he`s not worried

Italian PM says he is not worried by an impending prostitution trial, in his first public comments since he was indicted.

Updated: Feb 16, 2011, 18:25 PM IST

Rome: Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi says he is not worried by an impending prostitution trial, in his first public comments since he was indicted.

Berlusconi dodged questions about the case during a news conference Wednesday on economic themes in Rome. He said that he would not be speaking about the case "out of love of my country" but added: "I can only say one thing, I`m not worried at all."

The 74-year-old Italian leader was ordered Tuesday to stand trial on charges he paid a 17-year-old Moroccan girl for sex, and then used his influence to cover it up.

The 74-year-old Italian premier was ordered Tuesday to stand trial on charges he paid a 17-year-old Moroccan girl for sex, and then used his influence to cover it up — an offense that, if proven, could see him barred permanently from public office.

Berlusconi has called the allegations "groundless" and dismissed the case as a "farce," accusing prosecutors of seeking to oust him from power. He did not comment Tuesday, skipping a news conference in Sicily and meeting with his lawyer in Rome.

Unlike Berlusconi`s many past legal problems involving business-related charges concerning his Mediaset empire, this time he faces allegations of personal misconduct while serving as the head of government. The trial is set to begin April 6 before a panel of three female judges.

Prosecutors have already relayed more than 700-pages of wiretap conversations describing raucous behavior that would draw censure at most fraternity houses: sex-fueled parties attended by scantily clad women, sometimes dressed as nurses or police officers.

The indictment alleges Berlusconi paid for sex with the Moroccan girl, nicknamed Ruby, then used his influence to get her out of police custody when she was detained in connection with an unrelated theft of $4,103 (euro3,000). Prosecutors say Berlusconi called police the night of May 27-28, 2010, because he feared his relationship with the teen would be revealed.

So far Italians have been forgiving, with Berlusconi`s popularity damaged by the scandal but not demolished. However, having such details aired in a courtroom and not just on newspaper pages could change the tide against Berlusconi, experts warn.

"If you start to hear something (that) is really embarrassing and difficult to handle, I think that could hurt the image of Berlusconi and his position as prime minister," said Franco Pavoncello, a political analyst at John Cabot University in Rome.

Judge Cristina Di Censo handed down the indictment Tuesday with a terse statement that showed she believes there is sufficient evidence to subject Berlusconi to an immediate trial, as prosecutors requested. The speeded-up procedure, which is ordered in cases of overwhelming evidence, skips a preliminary hearing that alone can take nearly a year.

The child prostitution charge carries a possible prison term of six months to three years. However, the abuse of influence charge is even more dangerous: It carries a sentence of four to 12 years, and if Berlusconi is sentenced to more than five, he would be barred from ever again holding public office.

Both Berlusconi and the now 18-year-old Moroccan nightclub dancer deny having had sex together. Ruby, in a TV interview on a Mediaset channel, said Berlusconi gave her $9,000 (euro7,000) the evening they met, and later jewelry.

The trial will follow the resumption of three other criminal cases involving Berlusconi`s business dealings, creating both a legal morass for the premier, and a judicial juggling act as panels seek to schedule hearings amid Berlusconi`s commitments as head of government.

At the same time, a weakened Berlusconi will face the challenge of keeping unruly coalition partners happy, while attempting to repair the image of his country — badly damaged by his own scandal — on the international stage.

The trial itself will take months, if not years, given the difficulty of scheduling court appearances. While defendants are not required to attend trials in Italy, Berlusconi`s defense has often invoked his willingness to do so. Still, he has rarely showed up in court.

Berlusconi`s supporters had pushed for jurisdiction to be transferred to the Tribunal of Ministers, which deals with offenses committed by public officials in the execution of their duties. They argued that Berlusconi intervened with the Milan police because he believed Ruby was the niece of now ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and was trying to prevent a diplomatic incident.

Pierluigi Bersani, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, called for Berlusconi`s resignation, demanding early elections. "We don`t want Italy to be drifting," Bersani said.

A decision to dissolve parliament and hold new elections rests with President Giorgio Napolitano. He expressed concerns over the bitter conflict between the premier and the judiciary when the two met over the weekend.

While Italian politics is very polarized, Italians on the whole so far have been tolerant of Berlusconi`s antics and gaffes, from cavorting with attractive young women to commenting on Barack Obama`s skin tone.

Still, there are signs of discontent: More than a million women took to the streets over the weekend to protest what they called the denigrating treatment of women.

Ruby`s fame, in the meantime, has only grown: The buxom beauty is frequently photographed in low-cut, tight-fitting attire at night clubs and has appeared in a television commercial wearing only black lingerie.

Bureau Report