after the breathless build-up, Silvio Berlusconi's hotly anticipated "Rubygate" sex trial came to a premature halt yesterday after just nine minutes.
"Is that it?" gasped a surprised journalist, when at 9.45am Judge Giulia Turri declared the trial postponed until May 31. This is the next date for which the premier has indicated he will be free to appear in person and begin defending himself against the sex and corruption charges.
"Berlusconi intends to follow all the hearings of this trial,'' one of his defence team, Giorgio Perroni, said immediately after the adjournment. "But obviously, institutional engagements may arise and sometimes he will not be able to attend."
Yesterday, he cited an emergency cabinet meeting on the Libyan crisis as the reason.
While time is running out for other trials in which Mr Berlusconi faces charges of bribery and tax evasion, the prosecutors know for the "Rubygate" process, with the alleged crimes occurring less than a year ago, the statute of limitations should not be a factor.
Mr Berlusconi denies paying to have sex with the Moroccan belly dancer Karima el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby, before she was 18. He also rejects charges that he abused his powers to have her released from police custody when she was held for a suspected theft last May. Yesterday fresh prosecution leaks suggested Mr Berlusconi contacted Ms Mahroug with texts or phone calls 53 times in three months last year.But significantly, Ms Mahroug's lawyer, Paolo Boccardi, appeared in court to tell journalists that her client did not intend to become a civil complainant in the trial.
Had Ms Mahroug made such a request it would have in effect been an admission that she had prostituted herself -- which would have cast a cloud over Mr Berlusconi's defence.
Ms Boccardi denied that any sort of pressure had been put on her client to stop her from becoming a civil complainant.
But she added that Ms Mahroug's reputation had "suffered clear and serious damage" from the media coverage.
She brushed aside questions as to why Ms Mahroug had received huge amounts of money at Mr Berlusconi's parties if not for sex.The 'Corriere della Sera' newspaper said there were fears in Mr Berlusconi's camp that bit-part characters accused of pimping for the premier were considering plea-bargains.
The dental hygienist Nicole Minetti is considered the most likely to turn. She has been recorded describing Mr Berlusconi as "a piece of s**t . . . just out to save his flabby arse". (©Independent, London)