Berlusconi's latest trial could decide his political fate

0 CommentsPrint E-mail Xinhua, February 10, 2011
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Italian prosecutors on Wednesday filed a 782-page request making the case that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is guilty of abusing the power of his high office and of paying for sex with a minor. Many in Italy say the outcome of the case may decide Berlusconi's political fate.

Berlusconi has faced at least 17 official criminal and civil allegations since he first entered Italian politics in 1994. But this time things could be different, as pollsters say the accusations are resonating with a weary Italian public, and the case appears to be well-constructed to make a conviction more likely.

The investigation got underway in December on allegations that the 74-year-old prime minister paid for sex with a Moroccan-born cabaret dancer named Karima el Mahrough, better known by her stage name "Ruby." She was 17 at the time.

Prosecutors also alleged that Berlusconi tried to use his influence to have el Mahrough released from prison, where she was held on charges of theft.

Berlusconi reportedly lied to police by claiming that el Mahrough was the niece of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and that they should release her in order to avoid a diplomatic crisis.

In Italy, the age of consent in regard to sexual relations is 14, and prostitution itself is not illegal.

But paying for sex with a minor, which in Italy refers to anyone under the age of 18, is a crime punishable by up to three years in jail. Both Berlusconi and el Mahrough deny sexual relations, though el Mahrough admits Berlusconi did give her money.

The abuse of power allegation is even more serious, carrying the penalty of up to 12 years behind bars.

The case has made frontpage stories in Italian newspapers ever since it became public, and pollsters have told Xinhua that many Italians worry the issue is distracting Berlusconi from his job as prime minister, at a time when the country is gripped by slow growth and rising unemployment.

Prosecutor Edmundo Bruti Liberati's office has requested a fast- track trial, a move that will limit the arguments on both sides, and also make it less likely that the statute of limitations will expire before a decision can be made.

Berlusconi has escaped prosecution several times in the past because of statute of limitations laws. The fast-track process also limits the kind of charges that can be made, which in this case means prosecutors have focused on the charges they think would be the easiest to prove in court.

Judge Cristina di Censo will now have three options: she can grant a fast-track trial; she can dismiss the request and demand a deeper investigation into whether any wrongdoing actually took place; or she can decide that her court does not have the jurisdiction.

That last option is what Berlusconi's lawyers are fighting for, by claiming that the crimes are alleged to have taken place in Rome and Sardinia -- not in Milan, and that the Milan court does not have the authority to try a prime minister.

Di Censo said on Wednesday that she would make her decision by next Monday or Tuesday. If di Censo allows the fast-track hearing, it could get underway within a month, though Italian media reports said that it is more likely to start near mid-year.

Because of a decision by Italy's top court to strip away most protections in a controversial immunity law that would have prevented criminal investigations into Berlusconi and other top leaders, it is possible that Berlusconi will be required to appear in court on these latest charges.

If that really happens, it will be the first time that a sitting Italian prime minister is required to appear before a judge to answer accusations.

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