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Berlusconi 'not worried' over forthcoming underage sex trial

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-02-16

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi brushed off a court ruling ordering him to stand trial in April for charges of paying for sex with a minor Wednesday, saying he is "not at all worried" and that his government will stay on until 2013.

AFP - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi voiced defiance on Wednesday after an announcement that he must stand trial for sex with an underage prostitute, saying his government would stay on until 2013.

"All I can say is that I'm not at all worried," Berlusconi said in Rome at a press conference in which he listed his government's economic achievements.

"We have never been more united and more decided to continue the parliament until its mandate runs out," a smiling Berlusconi told reporters.

Despite insistent questions about the sex scandal, he declined further comment, saying: "For the love of God, I will not talk about this."

Berlusconi's supporters have rallied around the 74-year-old premier, who has denied all the charges and accused prosecutors of plotting against him, arguing that as long as he holds a majority in parliament he does not have to resign.

But outrage over the sex crime investigation has brought sharp condemnation from the Catholic Church and mass protests by hundreds of thousands of Italian women at the weekend, as well as a sharp fall in Berlusconi's popularity.

Stefano Folli, a columnist for Il Sole 24 Ore daily, said Italy is now facing a stand-off between the prime minister and the judiciary.

"We are headed for a devastating institutional conflict," Folli said.

"A prime minister standing trial for these very serious crimes... is a unique case in the recent history of Western democracies," he added.

A poll published on Monday said Berlusconi's approval rating fell to its lowest-ever level of 35 percent in January from 40 percent in December.

But the poll also showed Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party holding strong with 29.5 percent of voting intentions -- the highest of any party.

A poll last month as the scandal raged showed 49 percent of Italians believe Berlusconi should resign while 45 percent believe he should not.

The prime minister stands accused of paying for sex with a 17-year-old prostitute nicknamed "Ruby the Heart Stealer" and then abusing his powers to spring her out of police custody when she was later detained for theft.

The underage sex charge carries a maximum sentence of three years, while the abuse of power accusation is punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

Tuesday's announcement that Berlusconi will stand trial on these charges starting on April 6 is the latest twist in a scandal-plagued political career spanning nearly two decades for the billionaire media tycoon.

Berlusconi has survived four corruption convictions that have all been either overturned or expired under a statute of limitations, but it is the growing number of sex scandals that have clouded his career in recent years.

He also faces two more trials later this year on corruption charges.

While Italy's left-wing opposition is calling for Berlusconi's resignation, his allies say the Milan court due to hold hearings does not have jurisdiction.

"Democracy is in danger as there is a risk of an operation by the media and the judiciary to overturn the result of an election," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, a leading member of the PDL party, referring to Berlusconi's 2008 poll win.

Massimo Franco, a columnist for Corriere della Sera daily, said: "It's possible that early elections become inevitable but his numeric majority and the loyalty of the Northern League party... guarantee his survival."

The anti-immigration Northern League, which wants federal reforms to give Italy's northern regions greater powers, is Berlusconi's last major ally in government and its position in the weeks ahead is seen as critical.

Berlusconi survived two confidence votes last year after the defection of speaker of parliament Gianfranco Fini and around 40 lawmakers from the ruling coalition and has recently managed to strengthen his majority in parliament.

On Tuesday he accused Fini of slowing down reforms he had wanted to enact since their election victory in 2008 and he said that he would build up his majority to 325 seats out of 630 in parliament "in the next few days."

Date created : 2011-02-16


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