Silvio Berlusconi’s Milan trial on charges of underage prostitution and abuse of power was adjourned for more than a month, as the prime minister pledged to attend future proceedings and his allies in parliament maneuvered to have the case transferred to a special tribunal.
The trial will resume May 31, Judge Giulia Turri said at the Milan courthouse. Berlusconi, in a letter read out by his lawyer Giorgio Perroni, said that while the crisis in Libya prevented him from attending today’s opening session, he plans to be present at future hearings.
Berlusconi, 74, was ordered on Feb. 9 to stand trial on charges of abuse of power and paying a minor for sex, sparking calls for his resignation and intensifying a confrontation with the Italian judiciary. The trial will probe his ties, and possible payments, to Karima El Mahroug, a Moroccan woman known as Ruby Heart Stealer. She says she attended at least one party at the prime minister’s mansion near Milan in February 2010, when she was 17.
El Mahroug was not present in the Milan court today, said her lawyer Paola Boccardi.
Of the four current trials involving the prime minister, the underage prostitution and abuse-of-power case is grabbing the headlines and dividing public opinion. Berlusconi opponents have rallied outside the Milan tribunal, many holding banners, including one that read “your orgy days are numbered.”
The prime minister’s supporters, who have set up a gazebo as their courthouse headquarters, have been equally adamant that the prime minister is innocent.
“He’s an honest man, with impeccable morals, he can do what he wants in his own home,” said Maria Grazia Piracci, 53, a self-employed saleswoman waving an Italian flag. “If he wants to throw a party with some friends and make merry, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Piracci said she’s been at the courthouse every day since March 1.
The abuse-of-power charge stems from Berlusconi’s role in helping secure El Mahroug’s release from police custody in Milan after she was detained last May on unrelated theft charges.
Although Berlusconi’s popularity is at a record low, his ruling coalition is more popular in polls than the opposition, Rome-based IPR Marketing said in a survey of 1,000 Italians conducted on March 13 and March 14. No margin of error was given.
If elections were held now, voters would likely stick with the premier’s coalition, which had the support of 42.2 percent of respondents, compared with 41.2 percent for a group of opposition parties, the survey showed. If Berlusconi serves out his full five-year term, elections wouldn’t be held until 2013.
Berlusconi, who denies any wrongdoing, has called the charges in the sex and abuse-of-power case “disgusting” and “groundless.”
The premier attended a hearing on March 28 for another trial in which he’s accused of tax fraud in buying film rights for Mediatrade SpA, a unit of his Mediaset SpA broadcasting company.
Berlusconi is also charged in a third trial, related to alleged tax fraud at Mediaset. A fourth trial, involving allegations that Berlusconi paid U.K. lawyer David Mills a $600,000 bribe to lie under oath, is also underway.
Italy’s lower house of parliament yesterday approved a measure to request that the country’s highest court rule on whether the underage prostitution and abuse-of-power case should be heard by a special tribunal.
--Editors: Jerrold Colten, Dan Liefgreen
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