Berlusconi absence sees 'Rubygate' sex trial adjourned after just nine minutes

After the breathless build-up, Silvio Berlusconi's hotly anticipated "Rubygate" sex trial came to a premature halt yesterday after just nine minutes – rather less time than it took for one of the Italian Prime Minister's alleged "bunga bunga" sessions.

"Is that it?" gasped a surprised Canadian journalist on my right, when at 9.45am Judge Giulia Turri declared the trial, in the Fascist-era court building, postponed until 31 May. This is the next date for which the premier has indicated he will be free to appear in person and begin defending himself against the lurid sex and corruption charges.

"Berlusconi intends to follow all the hearings of this trial," one of his defence team, Giorgio Perroni, said immediately after the adjournment. "But obviously, institutional engagements may arise and sometimes he will not be able to attend." Yesterday, he cited an emergency cabinet meeting on the Libyan crisis as the reason.

While time is running out for other trials in which Mr Berlusconi faces charges of bribery and tax evasion, the prosecutors know for the "Rubygate" process, with the alleged crimes occurring less than a year ago, the statute of limitations should not be a factor.

Mr Berlusconi denies paying to have sex with the Moroccan belly dancer Karima el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby, before she was 18. He also rejects charges that he abused his powers to have her released from police custody when she was held for a suspected theft last May. The trial's outcome will hinge on whether the mountain of testimonies and wiretaps – involving Mr Berlusconi, his associates and young female friends – are sufficient to convince the three-woman judging panel of his guilt. Yesterday fresh prosecution leaks suggested Mr Berlusconi contacted Ms Mahroug with texts or phone calls 53 times in three months last year.

But significantly, Ms Mahroug's lawyer, Paolo Boccardi, appeared in court to tell journalists that her client did not intend to become a civil complainant in the trial, despite rumours to the contrary.

Had Ms Mahroug made such a request it would have been possible for her to claim significant damages were Mr Berlusconi found guilty. But this would have in effect been an admission that she had prostituted herself – a development that would have cast a cloud over the Prime Minister's defence.

Ms Boccardi, a media star in the making who glowed in a pale-rose coat and tastefully dyed hair, denied vehemently that any sort of pressure had been put on her client to stop her from becoming a civil complainant.

But she added that Ms Mahroug's reputation had "suffered clear and serious damage" from the media coverage which meant that now "men stopped her in the street and asked her to perform bunga bunga".

She brushed aside questions as to why Ms Mahroug had received huge amounts of money at Mr Berlusconi's parties if not for sex.

But if she was playing ball, rumours in the Italian press suggested key Berlusconi associates might prove less trustworthy when they take the stand. In particular, the Corriere della Sera newspaper said there were fears in Mr Berlusconi's camp that an improbable list of bit-part characters accused of pimping for the premier – including a television newsreader, his former dental hygienist and a seedy impresario – were considering plea-bargains.

The dental hygienist, Nicole Minetti, is considered the most likely of the three to turn. She has been recorded while describing Mr Berlusconi as "a piece of shit... just out to save his flabby arse".