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Italy's Berlusconi indicted in sex probe

MILAN - His penchant for beautiful young women has cost him his wife, and now may cost Silvio Berlusconi what he cherishes most: power.

The 74-year-old premier was ordered yesterday to stand trial on charges he paid a 17-year-old Moroccan girl for sex, and then used his influence to cover it up - an offense that, if proven, could see him barred permanently from public office.

Berlusconi has called the allegations "groundless" and dismissed the case as a "farce," accusing prosecutors of seeking to oust him from power. On Tuesday, he skipped a news conference in Sicily to meet with his lawyer in Rome.

Unlike his many past legal problems concerning his Mediaset empire, this time he faces allegations of personal misconduct while serving as the head of government. Trial is to begin April 6 before a panel of three female judges.

Prosecutors have relayed 700 pages of wiretap conversations describing raucous behavior that would draw censure at most fraternity houses: sex-fueled parties attended by scantily clad women, sometimes dressed as nurses or police officers.

The indictment alleges Berlusconi paid for sex with a Moroccan girl, nicknamed Ruby, then used his influence to get her out of police custody when she was detained in connection with an unrelated theft of $4,103. Prosecutors say he called police the night of May 27-28, 2010, because he feared his relationship with the teen would be revealed.

So far Italians have been forgiving, with Berlusconi's popularity damaged but not demolished. But having such details aired in a courtroom and not just in newspapers could change the tide against him, experts warn.

Judge Cristina Di Censo handed down the indictment with a terse statement that showed she believes there is sufficient evidence to go to an immediate trial, as prosecutors requested.

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