Following weeks of scandal that have shaken his struggling centre-right government, trial was set to start in a criminal court in Milan on April 6, according to a statement from the office of the city’s chief judge, Christina Di Censo.
Berlusconi is not obliged to appear in person before the panel of three female judges on that day, nor is there any legal obstacle to his continuing to hold office throughout any trial proceedings, which could take years before any conviction.
Throughout several other legal cases, the 74-year-old premier has kept the loyalty of lieutenants in his own party, which he set up after making his fortune in business. There has been no open push from his own allies for him to stand down.
“We did not expect anything different,” Piero Longo, one of Berlusconi’s lawyers who sits in parliament for the ruling PDL party, told reporters after the decision was announced.
Yet the decision is perhaps the most serious blow so far to Berlusconi, who has faced mounting public criticism as he tries to shore up a precarious majority in parliament.
A survey this week in the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper showed that almost 50% of Italians believe the accusations against him are true, although as many believe that even if he is guilty, he will not be punished.
“He should go before the judges to defend himself like anyone else who doesn’t have anything to hide and spare the country the spectacle before the world of a prime minister on trial for juvenile prostitution and abuse of office,” said Dario Franceschini a senior member of the opposition Democratic Party.
Italian media have been dominated for weeks by the alleged prostitution affair, which turns on the case of a teenaged Moroccan nightclub dancer named Karima el Mahroug, whose stage name is Ruby.
Prosecutors say they have ample evidence that Berlusconi paid el Mahroug for sex when she was under 18 — an offence in Italy — and also telephoned a police station to pressure officers to release her after she was held on theft allegations.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 3 years for underage prostitution and 12 years for abuse of office.
She denies having sex with Berlusconi but admits receiving at least €7,000 after attending a party at the premier’s luxurious residence near Milan.
Berlusconi has denied doing anything illegal and says he has been targeted by politically motivated judges who are determined to bring him down.
He says he has never paid for sex and says that when he telephoned the Milan police station it was because he believed el Mahroug to be the granddaughter of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and he wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident.
His lawyers argue the case should be heard by a special tribunal for ministers. They have 30 days to appeal the decision to skip a preliminary hearing and go straight to trial.