Plenty of flash at lightning-brief start of Berlusconi trial

The latest case against Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, who faces charges of sexual misconduct, was adjourned within minutes, but outside the court was a raucous amalgam of protesters and police.

Andrew Medichini/AP
People gather during an anti-Berlusconi protest in front of the Pantheon in Rome, on Tuesday, April 5. On Tuesday, the lower house of parliament, which is controlled by Berlusconi's conservative allies, approved a motion asking Italy's Constitutional Court to rule on who should try the premier on trial on charges he paid for sex with an underage prostitute, then tried to use his influence to cover it up. In Rome, Berlusconi critics plan an all-night vigil against what they say is the premier's attack on democracy.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's trial on charges of sexual misconduct and abuse of power was adjourned Wednesday just eight minutes after it began, offering a stark example of just how slowly Italian justice can move.

Mr. Berlusconi, who faces up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and then trying to cover up the alleged liaisons, did not appear at the Milan court. Nor did Karima el-Mahroug, the young woman at the center of the allegations.

The brief hearing touched on procedural matters before the three judges adjourned until May 31. That will give them time to consider a request by a women’s organization, Arcidonna, to be admitted as a civil party to the case on the basis that Berlusconi’s behavior has “offended the dignity” of all Italian women.

Indeed, the Berlusconi case has become a rallying cry for opponents of the controversial prime minister and has also galvanized many of his supporters. Outside the Milan courthouse Wednesday, both sides turned out for dueling demonstrations amid the crush of journalists in attendance for the highly anticipated trial.

Sluggish pace of justice

Berlusconi may attempt to drag out the case against him further. During his 17-year political career, he has faced numerous accusations of tax fraud, corruption, bribery, and embezzlement related to his multibillion-dollar business empire. Many of the cases ground on for so long that they timed out under Italy’s statute of limitations. He has never been definitively convicted of any crime.

On Tuesday, Berlusconi was able to secure the approval, through his political coalition’s parliamentary majority, of a motion that challenges the Milan court’s jurisdiction and argues that the case should instead be heard by a special tribunal of ministers.

The approval of the motion will not stop the trial going ahead for the time being, but is due to be considered by the Constitutional Court, which will decide in coming weeks whether to transfer the trial to the tribunal in Rome, which deals with offenses committed by MPs.

His latest trial is already expected to take months, if not years, because of the volume of material to be scrutinized. Prosecutors have filed 20,000 pages of evidence and have requested that 132 people be called as witnesses.

Berlusconi’s lawyers have presented a witness list of 78 people, including four cabinet ministers and the actor George Clooney, whom Ms. Mahroug claims was at one of the prime minister’s dinners – an account the Hollywood star denies.

Even if Berlusconi is found guilty of one or both of the charges, he is entitled to two appeals – a process that would drag the case out even longer.

Charges against Berlusconi could be hard to substantiate. Berlusconi has called the allegations “absurd,” and Ms. Mahroug denies that the two ever had sex. Prosecutors charge that Berlusconi paid the former nightclub dancer, who went by the stage name Ruby the Heart Stealer, for sex on 13 occasions when she was 17 years old, which is a year below the legal age of prostitution in Italy.

Dueling demonstrations

Outside the Milan court room on Wednesday, television vans vied for the best view of the imposing, white-marble court complex as yellow trams trundled past groups of opposing pro- and anti-Berlusconi demonstrators. Riot police equipped with shields and batons ringed the building.

“It’s all false and it is an outrage that the investigators have spent millions of euros wiretapping the phones of the prime minister and his friends,” says Maria Grazia Piracci, one of the pro-Berlusconi protesters. “For me, he’s a person to admire. As a businessman, he has created millions of jobs and as prime minister he’s done many positive things for our country.”

A group of the prime minister’s supporters burst into song with his unofficial anthem, “Meno male che Silvio c’e” (Thank goodness for Silvio) and chanted “Silvio, Silvio."

Across the street, anti-Berlusconi demonstrators carried banners, including one showing a photograph of the prime minister accepting a musket as a gift from Col. Muammar Qaddafi and the words “Down with tyrants!”

One of the protesters, Rosa Lazzaro, a retired teacher, said: “He can do whatever he likes in his own bedroom but this goes beyond sex. Through his television channels he’s managed to change the values of the entire country and the way in which power is wielded.”

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