Berlusconi sex trial begins

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s trial on charges he paid an underage
teenager for sex opened on Wednesday and was adjourned until 31 May  after a hearing that lasted just 10 minutes.

Berlusconi, who has suffered
relatively limited political damage from the “Rubygate” case, did not
attend the session, preferring to chair a ministerial meeting in Rome.

Crowds of critics and supporters
sparred verbally outside the court over whether the 74-year-old should go to
prison over his connection with Moroccan-born teenager Karima El Mahroug, a
nightclub dancer with the stage name of Ruby.

Berlusconi is accused of giving
Ruby cash and jewels in exchange for sex when she was 17 years old and thus too
young under Italian law to be paid as a prostitute.

He is also accused of abusing the
powers of his office to have her released from police custody over unrelated
theft allegations to try to prevent details emerging in official evidence.He denies the charges.

El Mahroug, who is a witness, also
did not attend but her lawyer repeated denials that she had ever slept with

“Ruby confirms that she has
never had sex with the prime minister,” Paola Boccardi told reporters
outside the court.

Critics of the prime minister, who
is also facing other trials for corruption and tax fraud, said they doubted
what the Italian media has dubbed “Rubygate” would ever be concluded.

Already hit by a party revolt last
year that nearly sank his centre-right government, Berlusconi has certainly
been hurt by the affair, which has drawn condemnation from women’s groups, the
Catholic Church and the country’s main business lobby.

But public opinion in Italy,
traditionally forgiving in questions of private morality, has not been as
damning as it would be in many countries and his parliamentary majority has
been strong enough to see off opposition calls on him to resign.