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Profile: Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's embattled leader

By Paul Armstrong, CNN
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is facing a court trial over allegations of sex with an underage nightclub dancer.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is facing a court trial over allegations of sex with an underage nightclub dancer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Silvio Berlusconi has amassed a fortune from his vast business empire
  • Has been prime minister three times and is Italy's longest-serving post-war premier
  • He has been embroiled in a number financial scandals relating to his business interests
  • Currently awaiting trial on charges of sex with an underage nightclub dancer - a charge he denies

(CNN) -- On the face of it, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has led a charmed life, with a vast business empire spanning media, construction and football, and a political career that has seen him become Italy's longest serving post-war prime minister.

However Berlusconi's life has also been punctuated by controversy, with the current allegations against him potentially the most damaging of all.

Born in Milan in 1936, Berlusconi gave notice early on of his showman side by working as a lounge room crooner aboard a cruise ship to help fund his university tuition -- he studied law.

Various low-level commercial enterprises followed before the fledgling entrepreneur enjoyed his first real success in property development in the late 1960s when he was involved in a project to build Milano Two -- nearly 4,000 flats -- outside Milan.

Silvio Berlusconi on trial

After amassing a fortune from his growing property portfolio in the 1970s, he diversified his interests by setting up a TV cable company, Telemilano, and buying two other cable channels in an effort to break the national TV monopoly in Italy. In 1978 these channels were incorporated into his newly-formed Fininvest group, which also included department stores, insurance companies and even AC Milan -- one of the world's biggest football clubs.

Berlusconi turned his attention to politics in 1994 when he formed the center-right Forza Italia Party and was elected as prime minister after a snap election. However a dispute with his right-wing coalition partners from the Northern League Party, as well as an indictment for alleged tax fraud, brought Berlusconi's tenure to an end barely seven months into the job. He was acquitted on appeal in 2000 after the statute of limitations -- which sets a time limit on bringing legal action -- had expired.

Q&A: Silvio Berlusconi's legal woes

After defeat in the 1996 election to political nemesis Romano Prodi, he was embroiled in other financial scandals, including a charge of bribing tax inspectors. He denied any wrongdoing and was cleared again on appeal in 2000.

There are still people who use the penal code as a weapon in their ideological battles.
--Silvio Berlusconi
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His fortunes turned again in 2001 when he was sworn in as prime minister for the second time. But Prodi -- a former European Commission President -- ended Berlusconi's more successful reign with his center-left Union coalition victory in 2006. At that time, the tycoon had presided over the longest-serving post-war Italian government.

Despite having a pacemaker fitted to regulate his heartbeat after he collapsed during a political rally, he refused to slow down and a freshly-coiffured and tanned Berlusconi was back in power for a third time in 2008 under the banner of the newly-created People of Freedom party.

The next 12 months proved to be a year of extremes for the veteran politician. He was praised for his handling of the devastating earthquake which struck the Italian town of L'Aquila in April, 2009, and even survived criticism after urging survivors to see their plight like "a weekend of camping."

But later that month Berlusconi's second wife, Veronica Lario, filed for divorce amid allegations that Berlusconi attended a birthday party for an 18-year-old aspiring model. Berlusconi said she was the daughter of a friend and that he had done nothing wrong.

In December that year, Berlusconi was hit in the face with a replica of Milan's cathedral at a campaign rally, breaking several of his teeth and fracturing his nose. Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the irrepressible Berlusconi continued to shake hands with supporters for "a couple of minutes" after being hit.

Meanwhile Italian prosecutors had expanded their tax fraud investigation into the country's biggest commercial broadcaster, Mediaset, which Berlusconi controls -- a probe he dismissed as politically motivated as he denied any wrongdoing. Until recently, an immunity law protected Berlusconi and other top Italian officials from prosecution in financial cases. This has since been overturned by the country's constitutional court.

With the country's economy reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, the pressure on Berlusconi continued to increase. Gianfranco Fini -- a former party ally -- accused him of a lack of attention to the economic crisis and structural reforms that Italy needs. This eventually led to a vote of confidence in the Italian parliament in 2010, which the embattled prime minister narrowly won by just three votes.

Now one of Europe's most dominant political figures faces his most serious challenge, as he awaits trial on charges of sex with an underage nightclub dancer and abuse of power.

Berlusconi had sex 13 times with underage dancer Karima el Mahroug, nicknamed "Ruby the heart-stealer," prosecutors have said in legal papers seen by CNN. Prosecutors claim he abused his position when intervened in May 2010 to get her released from the jail where she was being held on charges of theft. El Mahroug has said she never had sex with Berlusconi and that she lied to him about her age, telling him she was 24.

Berlusconi has denied all charges and recently accused prosecutors of conspiring against him in a left-wing plot. "Communism never changes in Italy. There are still people who use the penal code as a weapon in their ideological battles," he said last month in quotes carried by Agence France-Presse.