What's next for Italy's Berlusconi

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Italian magistrates said they would on Wednesday file the paperwork to bring Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to trial on charges on influence peddling, abuse of power, and solicitation for prostitution from a minor in connection with a Moroccan-born cabaret dancer named Ruby.

If it takes place as planned on Wednesday, the development will battle to share the news cycle with Berlusconi's expected announcement of a new economic package designed to help spark growth for the sluggish Italian economy.

The case would also be the latest in a long line of embarrassing developments for Italy's embattled 74-year-old leader, who in recent weeks has seen a controversial law that protected him from prosecution stripped of its main mechanisms.

That means that when the hearing gets underway, Berlusconi could be forced to appear in court personally to answer charges that he may have paid Ruby -- who was underage when she met Berlusconi -- for sex and used his influence to conceal her identity and get her out of trouble with police.

On Tuesday, Edmondo Bruti Liberati, the head prosecutor in the case, said that his office had yet to decide on the exact charges Berlusconi would face.

He said they may opt for a more simple set of charges that would allow the trial to proceed as a fast-track hearing, which would deny both sides of some legal protections and could also make it less likely that the statute of limitations would run out before a decision can be reached.

Berlusconi has escaped several potentially harmful verdicts in the past because of statute of limitation laws.

Judges will have at least five working days to decide whether the fast-track trial is warranted and to set a court date, probably starting around mid-year.

If found guilty of paying a minor for sex, Berlusconi could face up to three years in prison, with an additional six to 12 years for influence peddling and abuse of power.

Berlusconi has consistently denied any wrongdoing in the case, and has said that he and Ruby -- whose real name is Karima el Mahroug -- are only friends.

Government officials had planned to have Wednesday's news cycle to themselves, with the expected announcement of a series of measures aimed at sparking the country's anemic growth rate and also helping Berlusconi's own sagging approval levels in the process.

Pollsters say that Berlusconi's approval levels have been hurt by the perception that he prefers consorting with show girls like Ruby rather than focusing on the country's problems of slow growth, rising debt, and high unemployment levels, especially among young people.

Leaked drafts of the plan show that it will include tax breaks for businesses that hire new workers under the age of 25.

Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, considered a possible replacement for Berlusconi should the prime minister be forced to resign, has kept a low profile lately.

But he spoke out earlier in the week to say he would support Berlusconi's economic plan as long as it does not worsen the country's debt, which now stands at nearly 120 percent of Italy's gross domestic product, thought to be the highest debt level in the world.

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