Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, has been ordered to stand trial on charges he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl and then used his political position to try and cover it up.
Cristina Di Censo, a Milan judge, handed down the indictment on Tuesday. The trial is set to begin on April 6.
The 74-year-old billionaire has denied the charges against him, saying they are politically motivated. However, his lawyers on Tuesday said they “didn’t expect anything else,” in response to the news.
Prosecutors bringing the case against Berlusconi allege he paid for sex with a “significant number” of young women including a Moroccan dancer nicknamed Ruby the Heart Stealer, who was 17 at the time.
The premier is also accused of using his influence to free her from custody after being arrested on suspicion of an unrelated theft.
Political immunity removed
A group of Milan judges, who conducted an investigation into the claims before seeking trial, say the premier acted in fear that her detention would have revealed her relationship to him.
But Berlusconi and Ruby, whose real name is Karima El Mahroug, have both denied having sex, and the premier’s supporters say he helped release her from jail because he believed she was a relative of Hosni Mubarak, the recently ousted Egyptian president.
Tuesday’s development is the biggest blow yet to the embattled prime minister, who is resisting calls to step down amid a growing number of scandals and political problems.
Earlier this week, thousands of women rallied around the country against the prime minister, saying the alleged scandals were humiliating.
The prime minister has also come under pressure from the Vatican and Confindustria, Italy’s main business lobby.
Tim Friend, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Rome, said many people in Italy “are starting to ask if this is the beginning of the end for their prime minister”.
“This [impending court case] is the worst possible news for Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving post-war leader. He has a long history of accusations against him including sex scandals and corruption,” he said.
Berlusconi has also been made politically vulnerable following a split with a former ally, and last month a court partially removed his right to political immunity.
Tuesday’s decision suggests that Di Censo believes that there is sufficient evidence to subject Berlusconi to an immediate trial, which skips the preliminary hearing stage.
But his lawyers have previously accused the Milan court of “violating the constitution”, saying Berlusconi could only be tried in a special court for members of parliament.
Our correspondent said in theory the Italian leader could face up to 15 years in jail if found guilty.
“This looks as though the judge has decided on a fast-track trial.
“Berlusconi will be marshalling his defences, I think he will say some of this evidence against him was acquired through phone taps, through interceptions and he might challenge it in that way,” he said.
READMORE BERLUSCONI ORDERED TO STAND TRIAL
Take T2F (The Second Floor). It’s a new café cum hangout for Karachi’s budding poets, writers and artists – basically anyone looking for a welcoming public space to meet and mingle with others interested in fostering Karachi’s nascent intelligentsia. The brainchild of Sabeen Mahmud, a young woman with the goal of ‘intellectual poverty alleviation,’ T2F has gained a faithful following of activists committed to being the change they dream about under her ‘PeaceNiche’ banner – the umbrella organization she began in order to spark grassroots civil action. Social entrepreneurs, engaged youth, civic-minded citizens – they all congregate here to discuss the future of their country the way they imagine it. Sabeen has succeeded in creating a place that encourages the ‘space between your ears,’ as she puts it. “We all have days when we think there’s no point and that what we do is a piddling drop in the ocean,” she says. “But [you have to] dare to dream.”
Take Cynara Siddiqui. A veteran news videographer from the DAWN English-TV program who is currently working on a timely documentary for French television about Pakistan’s social issues. Committed to capturing social change by turning her keen eye towards Pakistan’s unsung heroes, Cynara’s ability to move amongst the people and translate their stories for a Western audience is invaluable to the future of global news. Brought up in Switzerland, Pakistan, and England, Cynara is an internationally savvy, bilingual, global citizen who perfectly represents the voices of tomorrow. “It’s not always smooth sailing,” she admits. “Pakistan [is] a very male -dominated country. I have experienced more of an inward reluctance than an outwards resistance whenever I assign work to male colleagues or issue instructions to men, especially if they’re older than me. But I find persistence is key to overcoming these minor irritations.”
Take Sumbul Khan. A curator of the Poppy Seed Gallery, Sumbul describes her space as a forum “committed to promoting critical reflection of contemporary Pakistani art.” Readings, sketching with live models, exploring religious art and bringing art critics and artists together all elevate the gallery from a hub of commerce to a place where people can understand the impact of art as a means of social change. “When you stand apart from the norm, there’s bound to be a lot of discouragement before the idea proves its worth at a level where it cannot be denied or dismissed,” explains Sumbul. “It’s always a struggle and sometimes struggles don’t bear fruits of the proportions we would like to see… but the struggle is worth it [nonetheless].”
In a patriarchal society rife with tribalism, it is remarkable that the women are among the most active engineers of social change. Pakistani women already envision a future free from poverty, corruption and religious extremism, and are quietly but determinedly making this mirage a solid reality.
Dilara Hafiz is the co-author of The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook and the former VP of the Arizona Interfaith Movement.
Those who insist on characterizing Egypt’s electrifying protests of the last week as “an Islamic uprising” fail to notice the Egyptian Christians who are protesting alongside Muslims and other Egyptians in Tahrir Square. It’s an amazing mosaic of Egyptians from all walks of life: women in black robes alongside young men drinking beer alongside Muslim Brotherhood members alongside secularists alongside professionals, and so on. As an American Muslim not of Egyptian descent, I find myself hoping that one of the results of this uprising will be solidarity between Egyptian Muslims and Egyptian Christians.
There’s already evidence and hope to that effect. Solidarity between Muslims and Christians is running high in Egypt, though of course there are always the fringe lunatics who find excuses for violence.
On Jan. 1, a terrorist bombing at a church in Alexandria tragically left 21 people dead. The media also covered the consequential street protests of Coptic youth. Yet, a story that received little coverage was the emphatic surge of solidarity between huge numbers of Egyptian Muslims and Christians.
After the bombing, one of Egypt’s highest-ranking Muslim shaikhs and Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Goma’a, said, “This is not just an attack on Copts, this is an attack on me and you and all Egyptians, on Egypt and its history and its symbols, by terrorists who know no God, no patriotism, and no humanity.”
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, stated, “An act like this is wholly condemnable in Islam. Muslims are not only obligated not to harm Christians, but to protect and defend them and their places of worship.”
After the bombing, thousands of Muslim Egyptians attended church services in Egyptian churches, in order to serve as human shields in case of another attack. They held candlelight vigils outside, as well. The group included everyone from preachers to students to movie stars and politicians.
Moreover, millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross beside a crescent, signifying “Egypt for All.”
This solidarity has held. During the past week’s demonstrations, many protesters held aloft signs with the crescent-cross symbol. When some Egyptian demonstrators began to shout “Allahu Akbar,” they were immediately drowned out by voluminous chants of “Muslim, Christian, we’re all Egyptians.”
And days ago, I saw one of the most moving sights I have seen in a long time. The peaceful protests had turned violent, when armed pro-Mubarak mobs (likely instigated by the regime) began attacking unarmed protesters. But when the pro-Mubarak mobs started attacking Muslims Egyptians who were at their prayers in the square, Christian Egyptians made a ring around them to protect them as they prayed.
Egypt still has a ways to go. Laws that discriminate against Christians in Egypt must be totally eliminated. Christians and Muslims share a history in Egypt that goes back a thousand years. The extremist ideologies originating in the 1970s have increased tensions in recent decades, and persecution of Egyptian Christians has increased. It must be completely rejected, as the majority of Egyptians — both Muslim and Christian — are already rejecting it on all grounds, from religious to humanitarian.
The Mubarak regime and its security apparatus has been complicit in persecution of Christians. Last year, a government moratorium on construction of a Christian community center resulted in clashes between police and protesters. More than a hundred were jailed.
In hoping that the peaceful protests prevail and the Mubarak dictatorship gives way to a real democracy, I also hope that, along with it, a truly pluralistic and nondiscriminatory society will result in Egypt. The uprisings are Egyptian uprisings, not Muslim uprisings, not Christian uprisings. May they prevail together and build a new, equal society together.
Sumbul Ali-Karamali is an attorney with an additional degree in Islamic law and is the author of ‘The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing.’