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.
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.
|El Mahroug, known as Ruby, has denied having sex with the Italian prime minister [Reuters]
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.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies