Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, mired in a prostitution scandal, faces a tax fraud trial on Monday, the first of four court cases that will bring his legal woes back into the spotlight over coming months.

The case involves the acquisition of television rights by Italy's biggest private broadcaster Mediaset, the crown jewel in Berlusconi's vast business empire, and is resuming after effectively being put on hold for a year.

The prime minister and other Mediaset executives are accused of inflating the price paid to purchase TV rights via offshore companies controlled by Berlusconi and skimming off part of the sums declared to create illegal slush funds.
Silvia Aloisi
Two other trials will resume in early March while a separate case, in which Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with an underaged nightclub dancer and abusing the powers of his office to try to cover up the affair, begins on April 6.

Berlusconi, who is not expected to appear in the court on Monday, denies doing anything illegal in any of the cases and says politically motivated leftist magistrates are bent on destroying him.

The trials come as the 74 year-old premier seeks to bolster a parliamentary majority which was slashed to a handful of votes after a split with longtime ally Gianfranco Fini and his supporters last year.

The break-up with Fini and the premier's mounting judicial problems had led many commentators to predict a government collapse and early elections this spring.

But Berlusconi has managed to lure back several lawmakers from Fini's breakaway movement and appears to have regained the upper hand in parliament, even if just by a few votes.

The government is doing fine, it has the numbers and will carry on, said Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League and Berlusconi's main coalition ally.

UNCOMFORTABLE POSITION

Still, Berlusconi faces a protracted legal battle that will revive juvenile prostitution charges that have made headlines around the world and prompted growing calls for him to resign.

Clearly this puts him in an uncomfortable position, and the pressure will build once the most embarrassing case starts -- the trial over his relations with young women, said Franco Pavoncello, political science professor at John Cabot University.

Dozens of showgirls and aspiring starlets who prosecutors say received cash and gifts after attending Berlusconi's parties and allegedly taking part in bunga bunga sex games could be called to take the stand in that trial.

It's one thing to read stuff in the newspapers, however damaging, and another to hear witnesses testify in court. That could be lethal for Berlusconi's image, Pavoncello said.

The three trials linked to Mediaset were allowed to resume after Italy's top court stripped Berlusconi of automatic immunity from prosecution.

However, the ruling coalition is mulling fresh legislation that would effectively extinguish those trials, including a draft bill cutting the maximum length of trials that will be debated by the lower house on March 28.

In the prostitution case, Berlusconi's lawyers are also expected to formally challenge the right of a Milan court to preside over the case, arguing that a special tribunal for ministers should be trying the premier.