Italy''s Berlusconi indicted in prostitution probe

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Milan, Feb 15 (AP) Italy''s Silvio Berlusconi, who hasdodged corruption trials and no-confidence votes with theskill of an Olympic athlete, faced a potentially fatalchallenge to his power today when a judge ordered him to standtrial on prostitution and abuse of power charges.

Berlusconi is going on trial on April 6 in Milan oncharges that he paid for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan girland then tried to cover it up.

Berlusconi has been in court for a number ofbusiness-related charges, but this is the first time the74-year-old billionaire businessman is being tried forpersonal conduct.

The premier has called the accusations "groundless"and dismissed the case as a "farce," accusing prosecutors ofseeking to oust him from power.

Judge Cristina Di Censo handed down the indictmentwith a terse statement that showed she believes there issufficient evidence to subject Berlusconi to an immediatetrial, as prosecutors had requested.

The speeded-up procedure, which is ordered in cases ofoverwhelming evidence, skips a preliminary hearing. The trialwill be heard by a panel of three judges, all of them women,all picked at random.

There was no immediate comment from Berlusconi. Heskipped a news conference in Sicily about immigration and didnot talk to reporters upon arriving back home in Rome.

"We didn''t expect anything different," one ofBerlusconi''s attorneys, Piero Longo, was quoted as saying bythe Affaritaliani website.

Still, the indictment just adds to his troubles. Thethree-time premier is politically vulnerable following a splitwith an ex-ally and the indictment will increase the pressureon him to resign, a possibility he has repeatedly rejected.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of women rallied acrossItaly to denounce Berlusconi''s conduct with young women, whichthey say degrades female dignity.

The child prostitution charge carries a possibleprison sentence of six months to three years. The abuse ofinfluence charge, which experts say is more dangerous forBerlusconi, carries a possible sentence of four to 12 years.

Berlusconi could be barred permanently from public office ifconvicted of abusing his influence and sentenced to more thanfive years on that.

The trial brings to four the number of judicial casesBerlusconi is currently battling. They will all be starting orresuming in coming weeks, after Italy''s highest court recentlywatered down an immunity bill his government had sponsored tosuspend the trials. (AP)

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