Berlusconi sex trial set to start

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's trial on charges of sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of power opens in Milan tonight (NZ time) after a dramatic build-up that has dented his popularity.

The billionaire tycoon is no stranger to the dock after years of investigations and trials linked to his business interests but this will be the first time that his tumultuous personal life is exposed in a courtroom.

Berlusconi himself will not be attending the preliminary hearing, a member of his defence team told AFP on condition of anonymity, and the judges are expected to delay the official start of the trial to May or even June.

On the eve of the hearing, Berlusconi's coalition in parliament approved a motion that challenges the prerogative of the court in Milan to try the prime minister indicating the case should be heard by a special court for ministers.

The vote, which is non-binding and will not halt the trial but opens the way for the Constitutional Court to consider the matter, was branded as "shameful" and "unconstitutional" by the opposition.

The twice-divorced 74-year-old has made no secret of his love for beautiful young women but vehemently denies having sex last year with then 17-year-old nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug - better known as "Ruby the Heart Stealer".

Berlusconi also says he ensured she was released from police custody after she was detained for theft in order to avoid a diplomatic incident because he thought she was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Mahroug, who has also denied having sex with Berlusconi, is not expected to attend Wednesday's hearing which comes after months of wire taps by prosecutors in Milan that have been splashed across Italian tabloids.

The underage sex charge carries a maximum sentence of three years, while the abuse of power accusation is punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

Berlusconi has laughed off the charges, which he describes as "absurd".

But his ratings have been hit, plunging to a new record low of 33 per cent in March according to a poll by Italy's IPR Marketing Institute.

Hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets in Italy to protest against the playboy tycoon after the scandal first broke, and rejoiced when it transpired the ageing Latin lover would be judged by a panel of three women.


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