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News Wrap: Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi Ordered to Stand Trial

February 15, 2011 at 6:28 PM EST
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Wall Street lost ground today after news that retail sales were surprisingly weak in January. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 41 points to close at 12,226. The Nasdaq fell more than 12 points to close at 2,804.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was ordered today to stand trial over allegations he paid a 17-year-old girl for sex.

We have a report narrated by James Mates of Independent Television News.

JAMES MATES: The prime minister of a major European economy, not just accused, but now formally charged with underage prostitution and abuse of power. He’s facing 15 years in jail, enough to force a resignation? It seems, not even close.

Prosecutors say they have ample evidence that Berlusconi, while in office, paid for sex with this woman when she was just 17. Karima El Mahroug, whose working name is Ruby, has become something of a celebrity in Italy, appearing in adverts like this one.

At one point, Berlusconi personally called the police and asked for her to be released from jail on a theft charge. He admits that, but says he did it because he thought she was the granddaughter of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Ruby, in fact, comes from Morocco.

She categorically denies having sex with Berlusconi. The prime minister, who canceled a press conference today and was glimpsed only briefly, has admitted giving her 7,000 euros to — quote — “help her out.”

The charges have now been laid. In just a few weeks, the details will be aired in open court.

FRANCO PAVONCELLO, John Cabot University: If you start to hear something which is really embarrassing and difficult to handle, I think that that — that could hurt the image of Berlusconi and his – his positioning as prime minister.

JAMES MATES: Just two days ago, hundreds of thousands of Italian women took to the streets to protest of Berlusconi’s behavior and his refusal to leave office.

“If not now, when?” they shouted. But he’s been leading Italy at various times since 1994, and with more than a third of Italians still saying they back him, his departure doesn’t seem to be imminent.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Berlusconi’s trial is set to begin April 6 in Milan.

The estimate of deaths from a massacre in Sudan doubled today. A senior member of the South’s ruling party said 211 people were killed in the attacks last week. The trouble started after the South voted for independence last month. Leaders from the South also accused the government of Sudan of arming and financing the rebels.

The U.S. will spend $25 million this year in a bid to boost political freedom on the Internet. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today it is clear governments can no longer pick and choose which rights to grant their citizens. She said leaders who restrict Internet freedom will eventually find themselves boxed in.

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: They will face a dictator’s dilemma, and will have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing, which means both doubling down on a losing hand by resorting to greater oppression and enduring the escalating opportunity cost of missing out on the ideas that have been blocked and people who have been disappeared.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The U.S. initiative will try to protect bloggers and help them bypass barriers like China’s great firewall and gags on social media in Iran and Cuba.

Federal prosecutors today defended their probe of WikiLeaks and its release of secret U.S. documents. They said their requests for information are routine. A federal magistrate has ordered the social media site Twitter to turn over data on several accounts linked to WikiLeaks. Lawyers for those users asked today that the order be rescinded.

And, last night, the U.S. House extended key parts of the anti-terror Patriot Act for 10 months. They involve wiretapping, surveillance and access to business records.

An Iraqi defector now acknowledges he lied about Saddam Hussein having biological weapons before the Iraq war. The Bush administration relied heavily on Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi and his evidence. He has long since been discredited. Janabi’s own admission came in today’s Guardian newspaper in London.

He said — quote — “I had the chance to fabricate something to topple Saddam’s regime. I and my sons are proud of that.”

Janabi insisted there was no other way, despite the thousands killed in the Iraq war.

Those are some of the day’s major stories.