- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

MILAN, Italy | Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has dodged corruption trials and no-confidence votes with the skill of an Olympic athlete, faced a potentially fatal challenge to his power Tuesday when a judge ordered him to stand trial on charges of prostitution and abuse of power.

Mr. Berlusconi is going on trial April 6 in Milan on charges that he paid for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan girl and then tried to cover it up. He has been in court for a number of business-related charges, but this is the first time the 74-year-old billionaire businessman is being tried for personal conduct.

The prime minister has called the accusations “groundless” and dismissed the case as a “farce,” accusing prosecutors of seeking to oust him from power.

Judge Cristina Di Censo handed down the indictment with a terse statement that showed she believes there is sufficient evidence to subject Mr. Berlusconi to an immediate trial, as prosecutors had requested. The expedited procedure, which is ordered in cases of overwhelming evidence, skips a preliminary hearing.

The trial will be heard by a panel of three judges, all of them women, all picked at random.

There was no immediate comment from Mr. Berlusconi. He skipped a news conference in Sicily about immigration and did not talk to reporters upon arriving back home in Rome.

“We didn’t expect anything different,” one of Mr. Berlusconi’s attorneys, Piero Longo, was quoted as saying by the Affaritaliani website.

Still, the indictment just adds to his troubles. The three-time prime minister is politically vulnerable following a split with an ex-ally and the indictment will increase the pressure on him to resign - a possibility he has repeatedly rejected. On Sunday, tens of thousands of women rallied across Italy to denounce Mr. Berlusconi’s conduct with young women, which they say degrades female dignity.

The child prostitution charge carries a possible prison sentence of six months to three years. The abuse of influence charge, which experts say is more dangerous for Mr. Berlusconi, carries a possible sentence of four to 12 years. Mr. Berlusconi could be barred permanently from public office if convicted of abusing his influence and sentenced to more than five years on that.