The case, which Berlusconi has dismissed as politically motivated, follows a four-year investigation into claims of embezzlement, false accounting, tax fraud and money laundering in television rights deals between 1994 and 1999.
Berlusconi, a flamboyant showman who defied national opinion and backed the US war in Iraq, could face up to six years in jail for tax fraud if convicted.
But the 69-year-old Berlusconi has managed to avoid jail in at least seven previous graft trials. He was found guilty four times, but verdicts were overturned on appeal or the statute of limitations applied and charges were dropped.
The decision to go to trial follows Berlusconi’s razor-thin defeat in April elections, which saw Italy’s longest-serving post-war prime minister ousted from power in what he angrily claimed was a fraudulent result.
Rags to riches
Nicknamed “The Knight”, billionaire businessman Berlusconi breezed into politics in 1994 promoting a “you can be rich like me” message that Italians lapped up.
Berlusconi’s first spell as prime minister did not last long, but he came back to power in 2001 with a centre-right coalition that defied Italy’s reputation for revolving-door governments.
He loves telling anecdotes about how he built his fortune, selling crumpled-up newspaper to light stoves in post-war Italy and using his charm as a cruise ship crooner, finally moving into property in Milan and then into the media business.
Berlusconi had repeatedly accused magistrates of working on behalf of the centre-left and said they would pursue him if he lost power.
“It was a predictable decision, considering the previous hearings in Milan,” said Berlusconi’s lawyer Niccolo Ghedini after Friday’s ruling. “They haven’t allowed crucial witnesses for the defence to be heard.”
Among the 13 people also ordered to stand trial was British lawyer David Mills, estranged husband of a British government minister, and Mediaset chairman Fedele Confalonieri, judicial and legal sources said.
Mediaset in a statement denied any crimes and said its executives and directors had always acted correctly.
Prosecutors suspect a US firm sold television and cinema rights to two offshore firms controlled by a Berlusconi family holding company, Fininvest.
The offshore firms then allegedly inflated the prices and sold them to Mediaset, controlled by Fininvest, to avoid Italian taxes and create a slush fund.