For Silvio Berlusconi, the news couldn't come at a worse time. The day after Italy's constitutional court struck down parts of a controversial law that had provided him immunity from his ongoing criminal trials, prosecutors confirmed on Friday, Jan. 14, that the embattled Prime Minister was under investigation for allegedly paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl last year.
The allegations are by far the worst the scandal-ridden Berlusconi has faced during a long history of battles with Italy's legal system which he has characterized as a campaign of political persecutions by left-wing judges. They include charges that the 74-year-old Prime Minister abused his position when he called a police station last May and intervened to free the girl in question, Karima El Mahroug, after she was detained on suspicion of theft.
On Friday, Berlusconi's lawyers were quick to deny the allegations as "absurd and without foundation" and called the investigation a "serious interference with the private life of the [Prime Minister] without precedent in the judicial history of the country."
But there's no question they come at a delicate time. On Thursday, one of Italy's highest courts knocked down parts of a law that had allowed politicians serving in the government to postpone their criminal trials simply by claiming that their duties impeded them from attending court. Rather than strike down the entire law, the court said judges could now decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether any given duty qualifies as important enough to skip trial. "The exercise of the various functions of the Prime Minister or his Ministers don't necessarily comprise an absolute impediment," says Alessandro Pace, a professor of law at Rome's La Sapienza university who has written extensively against the legislation. "The premise is absurd. Anybody can find time to respect the justice system."
As well as reactivating Berlusconi's ongoing trials for tax fraud and corruption, the ruling leaves him exposed to the accusation that he paid to have sex with El Mahroug, a Moroccan belly dancer who also went by the name Ruby Rubacuori "Ruby, stealer of hearts."
The Prime Minister's cases could be heard in court as early as next Friday, forcing him to defend himself even as he presides over a razor-thin majority in the face of an increasingly energized opposition. "The hour of truth is coming," says Antonio Di Pietro, a leading left-wing politician, one of Berlusconi's most vociferous critics and a former prosecutor who investigated the Prime Minister and his companies in the 1990s.
Yet while the decision erodes the staying power of a ruler racked by sex scandals and party defections, it would be premature to write Berlusconi's political obituary. The Prime Minister who the day before the verdict declared he was "indifferent" to its outcome has been battling the justice system since before he entered politics in 1994 and has always managed to stay one step ahead of any charges, maintaining his innocence with the help of his company's three television stations.
Under Italian law, the statute of limitations continues to tick even after prosecution begins. The accused are allowed two appeals, and if the final verdict isn't sealed before the clock runs out, the charges are dropped. Thursday's ruling likely offers Berlusconi plenty of chances to stall. While he has been convicted several times for perjury, bribery and corruption he has always managed to beat the rulings via appeals or by running out the statue of limitations. Parliaments over which he has presided have passed legislation that cuts the statute of limitations on the types of nonviolent crimes of which the Prime Minister has been accused. The law that was partially struck down on Thursday was Berlusconi's third attempt to resolve his problems with the justice system. Two other laws have been similarly struck down in the past.
Nonetheless, Berlusconi's political opponents are unlikely to give up. On Wednesday, the constitutional court granted a motion filed by Di Pietro that allows him to take his case to the voters, asking them to decide whether to strike down the rest of the law. In a referendum, most likely to be held in the coming months, Di Pietro will argue that the law was crafted to personally benefit the Prime Minister. "The people voted for Berlusconi to resolve the problems of the people, not to resolve his problems," says Di Pietro.