MILAN (Reuters) - An Italian judge has ordered Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to stand trial in April on charges of paying an underage girl for sex and abuse of office, although there seemed no immediate risk the scandal would force him out.
Following weeks of scandal that have shaken his struggling center-right government, trial was set on Tuesday to start in a criminal court in Milan on April 6, according to a statement from the office of the city's chief judge.
Berlusconi is not obliged to appear in person before the panel of three judges on that day, nor is there any legal obstacle to his continuing to hold office throughout any trial proceedings, which could take years before any conviction.
Throughout several other legal cases, the 74-year-old premier has kept the loyalty of lieutenants in his own party, which he set up after making his fortune in business. There has been no open push from his own allies for him to stand down.
"We did not expect anything different," Piero Longo, one of Berlusconi's lawyers who sits in parliament for the ruling PDL party, told reporters after the decision was announced.
Yet the decision is perhaps the most serious political blow so far to Berlusconi, who has faced mounting public criticism as he tries to shore up a precarious majority in parliament.
A survey this week in the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper showed that almost 50 percent of Italians believe the accusations against him are true, although as many believe that even if he is guilty, he will not be punished.
"He should resign because this situation has become unbearable," said Pierluigi Bersani, head of the opposition Democratic Party.
But Justice Minister Angelino Alfano retorted: "What happened to someone being presumed innocent?"
Italy's largest Catholic magazine, Famiglia Cristiana, said on its website that Berlusconi had perhaps met his nemesis because the judge who indicted him and the judges who will hear the case are all women.
"You, Berlusconi, have used women, and in a bad way. Now women themselves will mete out justice," it said.
Italian media have been dominated for weeks by the alleged prostitution affair, which turns on the case of a teenaged Moroccan nightclub dancer named Karima el Mahroug, whose stage name Ruby has become a household term in Italy.
Prosecutors say they have ample evidence that Berlusconi paid el Mahroug for sex when she was under 18 -- an offence in Italy -- and also telephoned a police station to pressure officers to release her after she was held on theft allegations.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 3 years for underage prostitution and 12 years for abuse of office.
She denies having sex with Berlusconi but admits receiving at least 7,000 euros ($9,500) after attending a party at the premier's luxurious private residence at Arcore near Milan.
Berlusconi has denied doing anything illegal in the case and says he has been targeted by politically motivated judges backed by the left who are determined to bring him down.
He says he has never paid for sex and says that when he telephoned the Milan police station it was because he believed el Mahroug to be the granddaughter of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and he wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident.
"I believe there is very precise and significant evidence to show that there was no abuse of office offence and no offence regarding sexual acts with a minor and incidentally it seems very much open to debate whether this girl was a minor at all," said Maurizio Paniz, a lawyer and senior PDL deputy.
On Tuesday, Berlusconi pulled out of a news conference that was scheduled to discuss Tunisian refugees arriving in Sicily.
The constitutional court last month removed the automatic immunity from trial that Berlusconi had previously enjoyed. The prime minister is also due to face trial in three unrelated embezzlement and fraud trials in the coming weeks.
His lawyers argue the latest case should be heard by a special tribunal for ministers. They have 30 days to appeal the decision to skip a preliminary hearing and go straight to trial.
Rocco Buttiglione, a member of the centrist UDC party, said the political situation had become "intolerable" and Berlusconi had become a problem for the whole country:
"Berlusconi has become a symbol of national division."