ROME — Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces trial hearings for bribery and for paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl on Monday, as the Italian leader fights off growing unpopularity and financial woes.
Berlusconi, 74, is a defendant in three ongoing trials but is only due to attend the corruption hearing in which he stands accused of paying a bribe to his former British lawyer, David Mills, to give false testimony in court.
The other hearing centres around allegations that Berlusconi had sex on several occasions at his villa last year with Moroccan-born nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, better known by her stage name as “Ruby the Heart Stealer”.
The prime minister is also suspected of abusing his powers by having the girl sprung from police custody when she was arrested in May 2010 for alleged theft — a move prosecutors say was an attempt to hide his sex crime.
He faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted of abuse of power.
Berlusconi has repeatedly protested his innocence and insists that prosecutors are waging a personal vendetta against him. The billionaire tycoon has been investigated ever since entering politics in the early 1990s.
Monday’s hearing is expected to be important procedurally after Berlusconi’s lawyers challenged the court’s authority to hold the trial at all, saying the abuse of power charge should be held by a special ministers’ court.
Berlusconi’s defence also contends that the prostitution charge for the television magnate should be heard by a court closer to his luxurious personal residence in Arcore outside Milan where the alleged crime took place.
In the other trial hearing that Berlusconi will attend, he is accused of bribing his former lawyer with 600,000 dollars. Several witnesses living in Switzerland are set to testify in that hearing on Monday via video conference.
Berlusconi is a defendant in a third trial involving alleged tax fraud committed by his business empire Mediaset with distribution rights deals.
He is also being investigated for fraud in a fourth case involving another of his companies, Mediatrade, which has not yet gone to trial.
Berlusconi is on the backfoot politically following his People of Freedom party’s defeat in key local elections in May and a round of referendums last month in which several key policies for his government were struck down.
Despite reports of serious infighting with the Northern League party, a key coalition partner, and various ministers inside his own cabinet, Berlusconi still holds a majority in both the lower and upper houses of parliament.
He has vowed to see out his mandate, which only runs out in 2013.
Italy’s record-high public debt and near-zero growth are also beginning to weigh on Berlusconi’s leadership however, and there are growing signs of investor unease about Italy’s ability to stay out of the eurozone debt crisis.