Berlusconi sex trial adjourned

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi's trial on charges he paid for sex with an underage prostitute, then tried to use his influence to cover it up, was adjourned shortly after it opened today at a courthouse thronged with media and surrounded by noisy supporters and protesters.









Mr Berlusconi, who was holding a ministerial meeting in Rome, did not attend the hearing which lasted seven minutes and was devoted to formalities. The trial was adjourned to May 31.



Dozens of police patrolled the courthouse in downtown Milan.



More than 100 journalists attended the opening session, while satellite TV trucks lined the streets surrounding the huge Fascist-era courthouse.



Unlike Mr Berlusconi's other trials, this one puts the Italian premier's personal life under scrutiny, and a conviction could end his political career. He denies any wrongdoing.



Prosecutors allege Mr Berlusconi paid Moroccan teenager Karima el-Mahroug, known as Ruby, for sex at his villa in Arcore, then called police to have her released from custody when she was picked up for theft out of concern that she would reveal their relationship. She was 17 at the time.



Both the 74-year-old premier and Ms el-Mahroug, who is now 18, have denied having sex.



Ms el-Mahroug's lawyer, Paola Boccardi, said her client would not seek to become a civil complainant in the trial, a move that would have allowed her to seek financial damages in the case of a guilty verdict and would have given her legal team the ability to question witnesses.



Ms Boccardi said that declaring Ms el-Mahroug a civil complainant would have been tacit admission of the accusations that she had been paid to have sex with Mr Berlusconi - something she strongly denies.



"This contrasts with what Karima has always declared. She has always said she was never the object of sexual acts by premier Berlusconi, and she has never made the choice to be a prostitute," Ms Boccardi said. "Karima does not believe herself to have suffered any damage for having been present at Arcore, or having visited with the premier."



Police officials who were contacted by the premier or his office the night that Ms el-Mahroug was taken into custody have also decided not to declare themselves civil complainants.



Mr Berlusconi's defence and political allies are trying to get the trial moved out of the Milan tribunal, which the premier maintains is politically slanted against him.



They want the case transferred to the Tribunal of Ministers, which deals with offences committed by public officials in the execution of their duties.



The underage prostitution charge carries a possible prison term of six months to three years. The abuse of office charge is even more dangerous: it carries a sentence of four to 12 years, and if Mr Berlusconi is sentenced to more than five years, he would be barred from ever again holding public office.



George Clooney, Italian cabinet ministers and aspiring starlets have been called to make appearances at the trial, though the court must decide which witnesses to admit.



Outside, Berlusconi supporters swapped insults with opponents of the premier but the heavy presence of riot police prevented any real scuffles.





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