The Brief, Bizarre Start of Berlusconi's Sex Trial

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Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters

A painting called Silvio & Ruby, made with plastic bags and Scotch tape by Israeli artist Dodi Reifenberg, is displayed at the Edward Cutler gallery in Milan on April 6

The television vans had lined up early Wednesday morning. Telephone cables had been laid. Permissions had been secured. More than 150 journalists, from as far away as Russia and New Zealand, had been accredited. They lined the benches in the Milan courthouse and stood four deep in the back, waiting for the start of the trial of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on charges of paying an underage prostitute for sex and abusing his office to cover it up. "It feels like a circus," said Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, who was attending the hearing. "Collectively, as Italians, we feel like clowns. And it's not a nice feeling."

At 9:38 a.m. local time, eight minutes behind the scheduled start, a bell rang and everybody stood as the judges walked in. Seven minutes later, court was adjourned. The date for the continuation of the trial was set for May 31. Journalists swarmed forward to glean what news they could from the lawyers. "We certainly thought there would be more substance," said Paul Hobbs, who had flown in from London for Television New Zealand. "We thought they'd have at least read out the charges."

Neither Berlusconi nor his chief lawyer had attended the speedy procedural hearing. Under Italian law, the defendant is not required to attend hearings in most cases, and Berlusconi was in Rome, meeting with Ministers on the conflict in Libya. But Berlusconi's lawyer said the Prime Minister intends to show up to future hearings. Both the 74-year-old Prime Minister and the woman he stands accused of sleeping with — Karima El Mahroug, a Moroccan nightclub dancer who also goes by the name Ruby Stealer of Hearts — deny they ever had sex with each other.

Outside the courthouse on Wednesday, television cameras outnumbered the demonstrators who had come to support or condemn the Prime Minister. About a dozen Berlusconi boosters sat under a white gazebo tent, handing out flyers. Across the street, behind a thin line of police, a similar number of the Prime Minister's critics had turned up to shout out cries of "Shame!" Asked why so few demonstrators had turned up, one answered, "Don't put your finger in the wound." "People are just about anesthetized," said Antonietta Bergamo, a woman in her 60s who had joined the anti-Berlusconi crowd. "They think that nothing more can be done."

Yet beyond the media circus and the piling up of salacious details — the prostitution is alleged to have occurred as part of the Prime Minister's "bunga bunga" sex parties featuring showgirls dressed up as nurses and police officers — lie a series of sobering issues, including whether Berlusconi favored his sexual partners with political offices. "This case has serious implications for the rights and dignity of women in Italy," says Valeria Ajovalasit, president of Arcidonna, a women's rights organization that petitioned the court Wednesday to be included as a civil plaintiff in the case.

The day before the hearing, Italian newspapers had published leaked wiretaps from August of the Prime Minister suggesting he had been concerned about El Mahroug's age. Also on Tuesday, Italy's Parliament — which Berlusconi controls — voted to petition the country's constitutional court to have the trial moved from Milan to a special tribunal for Ministers, which would need parliamentary permission to proceed. Many see the trial as a final showdown between Italy's judiciary, which had brought down the government that preceded Berlusconi's entrance into politics, and the Prime Minister, who characterizes the accusations as part of a persecution by left-wing prosecutors. "It's high noon between Berlusconi and the magistrates," said commentator Severgnini. "Somebody's going to get hurt." The Prime Minister's trial may be something of a circus, but for many it is nothing to laugh about.