English.news.cn 2011-04-05 23:23:10
by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, April 5 (Xinhua) -- The trial over Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's sex scandal will begin Wednesday, but a top aide said Berlusconi would not appear in court.
Nor will television cameras, as Italian Attorney General Laura Bertole Viale and State Prosecutor Manilio Minale agreed to reverse a previous ruling that would have allowed state broadcaster RAI to film the trial. They said the ruling was changed to prevent the hearing from becoming a "circus."
But it seems impossible to prevent that. Protesters and supporters have both said they would gather in front of the Milan courthouse, where the trial will start at 9:30 a.m. (0730 GMT) Wednesday.
Hundreds of journalists have been reporting on every micro development from the case ever since it was announced in February. And the witness list includes American movie star George Clooney and his showgirl girlfriend, Elisabetta Canalis.
Berlusconi is charged with paying for sex with a minor, a then-17-year-old cabaret dancer called Karima el-Mahroug, known by her nickname "Ruby the Heart Stealer."
The leader is also charged with abusing his position as prime minister to cover up his connection with el-Mahroug by pressuring police to release her from custody after she was detained over separate theft allegations.
The trial seems to be a kind of drama compared to the two other Berlusconi trials, where he faces much more technical charges including tax evasion and bribery.
According to Cabinet Undersecretary Gianni Letta, Berlusconi's closest aide, the prime minister will not be present for Wednesday's opening hearing, which is expected to focus mostly on procedural matters.
There is a chance that the trial could be aborted before it really gets under way. Italian lawmakers started debate Tuesday on a measure that could slow or even halt the proceedings.
They will decide whether the Milan court is the appropriate venue for the hearing, with Berlusconi's lawyers arguing that he should be tried before a special minister's tribunal given that the abuse of power charges relate to Berlusconi's position as prime minister.
However, the Constitutional Court ruled in March that the Milan court had the authority to handle the case.
But if parliament contradicts that ruling, the Constitutional Court would be forced to rule again and confirm the tribunal members.
Regardless of the parliamentary vote, Wednesday's hearing will take place. But if legislators vote against the court's authority, it means the trial could be halted in the future.
Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon who controls three of Italy's seven national television networks, denied wrongdoing in the case involving el-Mahroug as well as the others and insisted that he is a victim of the corrupt Italian judiciary.
As the cases approached, his ruling coalition fractured and his popularity dropped to nearly a historical low, but at least so far, his grip on power does not seem at risk.
Since he entered public life in 1994, Berlusconi has faced at least 17 official criminal and civil allegations.