ROME (AFP) ― Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces trial hearings for bribery and 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.
He had been due to attend one of them, 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.
But he has since said he will not be present because of a meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
Silvio Berlusconi. (AP-Yonhap News)
The other hearing centers 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 of all the charges and insists that prosecutors are waging a personal vendetta against him.
The billionaire tycoon has been under investigation 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 considered by a special ministers’ court.
Berlusconi’s defense 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, he is accused of bribing his former lawyer with $600,000. Several witnesses living in Switzerland are set to testify in that hearing on Monday via video conference.
Berlusconi is also 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 back foot 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 key coalition partner the Northern League ― and with 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 runs until 2013.
Italy’s record-high public debt and near-zero growth are also beginning to weigh on Berlusconi’s leadership, however.
There are growing signs of investor unease about Italy’s ability to stay out of the eurozone debt crisis.