MILAN (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's trial on charges he paid an underage teen-ager for sex opened Wednesday and was adjourned until May 31 after a hearing that lasted just 10 minutes.
Berlusconi, who has suffered relatively limited political damage from the "Rubygate" case, did not attend the session, preferring to chair a ministerial meeting in Rome.
Crowds of critics and supporters sparred verbally outside the court over whether the 74-year-old should go to prison over his connection with Moroccan-born teen-ager Karima El Mahroug, a nightclub dancer with the stage name of Ruby.
Berlusconi is accused of giving Ruby cash and jewels in exchange for sex when she was 17 years old and thus too young under Italian law to be paid as a prostitute.
He is also accused of abusing the powers of his office to have her released from police custody over unrelated theft allegations to try to prevent details emerging in official evidence. He denies the charges.
El Mahroug, who is a witness, also did not attend but her lawyer repeated denials that she had ever slept with Berlusconi.
"Ruby confirms that she has never had sex with the prime minister," Paola Boccardi told reporters outside the court.
Some 100 television crews from as far away as Australia
vied for space in front of the courthouse after the three female judges ruled they could not enter. About 100 journalists were packed inside the court.
Critics of the prime minister, who is also facing other trials for corruption and tax fraud, said they doubted what the Italian media has dubbed "Rubygate" would ever be concluded.
"I am angry because they will never sentence him. The law is not equal for everyone. If I steal an apple, I go to jail," said Aldo Giassi, 86, who wore a Berlusconi mask.
His supporters, who set up a gazebo outside the court, said the prime minister was being pursued by leftists determined to destroy him politically, echoing Berlusconi's own words.
"It's just dirt. They are trying to throw dirt at our prime minister," said Giovanni Esposito.
Already hit by a party revolt last year that nearly sank his centre-right government, Berlusconi has certainly been hurt by the affair, which has drawn condemnation from women's groups, the Catholic Church and the country's main business lobby.
Many Italians believe he has focussed too much on his legal problems and not enough on issues such as the sluggish economy, high youth unemployment and security.
But public opinion in Italy, traditionally forgiving in questions of private morality, has not been as damning as it would be in many countries and his parliamentary majority has been strong enough to see off opposition calls on him to resign.
The long-term consequences are unclear and legal manoeuvring may push the case into the kind of judicial limbo that has seen many past trials of politicians run into the sand.
Even by the turbulent standards of Italian politics, the accusations are extraordinary and would almost certainly have ended the career of any other European leader, especially given the raft of unsolved problems facing the government.
Newspapers have given their readers a lurid picture of life at Berlusconi's palatial private residence outside Milan, describing "bunga bunga" sex parties with dozens of girls who would leave carrying envelopes stuffed with bundles of cash.
Berlusconi, one of Italy's richest businessmen, admits a fondness for young women but has dismissed the scandalous stories, saying the dinners he regularly holds are elegant, convivial occasions where guests eat, tell jokes and sing songs.
He says the presents of cash, jewels, cars and houses investigators say were given to the young women who attended were no more than generous gestures.
He has pledged to fight the accusations and his supporters believe that the months of scandal mean he has little to fear from any new revelations.
Outside the court, Milan resident Roberto Missiroli took a view increasingly typical of a jaundiced Italian public.
"Everyone seems to say what they want. But when you reach a certain level of power you can do pretty much what you want."