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Prosecutors seek sex trial for Berlusconi

By Reuters

Premier accused of paying for sex, abuse of office; Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing; scandal has hurt Berlusconi but core support has held up

Italian prosecutors filed a request on Wednesday to bring Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to trial immediately over the prostitution scandal that has rocked his centre-right government.

Prosecutors accuse Berlusconi of paying for sex with a nightclub dancer when she was under 18, the minimum age at which it is legal to be a prostitute in Italy. They also accuse him of abusing the powers of his office by pressuring police to have her released from custody over theft allegations.

Their application, which means they believe they have enough evidence in the case to skip a preliminary hearing, will add to the pressure on the 74-year-old premier, who is clinging on to power after a split in the ruling PDL party last year.

The move, announced in a dry statement by prosecutors issued as Berlusconi was in Rome outlining a plan to revive the sluggish economy, is likely to be only one stage in a potentially long legal battle with an uncertain outcome.

Berlusconi, whose immunity from prosecution was struck down last month by the constitutional court, is already on trial in three related tax fraud, embezzlement and corruption cases which are due to be heard in the coming weeks.

He has rejected calls to resign and denies any wrongdoing, accusing leftist magistrates of mounting a politically motivated campaign to destroy him.

Milan chief prosecutor Edmondo Bruti Liberati sent a request with 782 pages of evidence alleging Berlusconi paid for sex with a "significant number" of young women, including then-17-year-old nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug.

The deposition also alleges that he later exerted improper pressure on officials to have El Mahroug, known by her stage name "Ruby", released from a Milan police station after she was detained on unrelated theft allegations.

A judge now has at least five days to decide. If the request is accepted, the trial could begin within a couple of months.

The abuse of office charge carries a sentence of up to 12 years in jail while the charge of having sex with an underage prostitute carries a sentence of up to three years.

Berlusconi dismissed the accusations as "disgusting and disgraceful" and said the Milan prosecutors' office was acting for "subversive purposes."

"These practices are against the law, they go against parliament," he told reporters. He said he would take legal action against the Italian state.

Berlusconi's grip on power was weakened by a split in his centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party last year that cost him a secure majority in parliament.

Since then, he has clawed back some lost ground in parliament by attracting support from smaller parties. Opinion polls show the investigation has damaged him but has not delivered a knock-out blow. 

With the divided opposition presenting little threat, he could return to power if an early election were held.

However, the investigation has added more acrimony to an already toxic political climate which is likely to make much needed reforms more difficult to achieve and increase the chances of a crisis that could pitch Italy into an early election.

Leaked wiretaps from the investigation have been splashed over media with references to bundles of cash, talk of sex games and gifts that would-be starlets allegedly received after attending parties at Berlusconi's villa.

Berlusconi's defence team has presented evidence from dozens of guests saying the parties at his villa were "normal, convivial dinners".

He has acknowledged making a call to police on El Mahroug's behalf, saying he had been told she was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's niece. He says he did nothing improper and was only trying to avoid a potential diplomatic embarrassment.

Berlusconi announced new economic measures on Wednesday and said he would seek a confidence vote in parliament on planned reforms to the federal system.