Berlusconi sex trial resumes

2011-05-31 22:29

Milan - Italy's playboy premier Silvio Berlusconi shrugged off a crushing political setback on Tuesday, quipping that it was too early for his funeral, as his trial for sex with an under age call girl resumed.

The billionaire tycoon's People of Freedom party suffered a humiliating defeat in local elections on Monday, including the loss of Milan city hall.

But Berlusconi played down the results. On Tuesday evening he told journalists in Rome: "We won't give up."

"We've had a goal scored against us, it's true. But we have two more years to play," he said. "I'm very confident. We have the majority needed to carry out reforms."

Earlier on Tuesday, the premier had smiled and joked with reporters during a visit to Romania.

"I had a meeting because I wanted to set the date for my funeral but I'm too busy in the next few days so let's put it off," he said.

An unamused Pier Luigi Bersani, the head of the main opposition Democratic Party, called on the prime minister to resign.

"It's a disaster for the country to be obsessed with the problems of just one person. Berlusconi... cannot keep Italy prisoner," he said.

The opposition has long argued that Berlusconi is in no position to govern while he continues to stand trial for a series of alleged legal and sex offences.

Ruby the Heart Stealer

In the latest trial, which began in April, the 74-year-old has been charged with paying for sex last year with Moroccan-born Karima El Mahroug, better known as "Ruby the Heart Stealer", when she was 17.

He is also accused of abuse of power for allegedly pressuring police to have her released from custody when she was arrested for theft.

The prime minister did not attend Tuesday's hearing, but his lawyers presented a series of complaints including challenging the court's right to hear the case.

The defence claims the premier ensured El Mahroug was released in order to avoid a diplomatic incident because he mistakenly thought she was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said he should be tried in a special court for ministers if judged to have been acting in an official capacity.

He also said the defence could produce witnesses who were with Berlusconi when he met Mubarak and could testify to having heard him speak "confidently" about knowing the Egyptian chief's niece during a speech at a formal dinner.

The premier, who faces a maximum of 12 years in prison, has denied all the charges and accuses prosecutors of cooking up a left-wing plot against him.

He is not expected to attend the next hearing, scheduled for next Monday.

Months of intense press coverage of alleged orgies held at the premier's Milan home - coupled with the continued weakness of the Italian economy - have seen his approval ratings drop.

Berlusconi had declared the elections a test of his popularity, and left-wing lawyer Giuliano Pisapia's triumph in Milan - with 55% of the vote against incumbent mayor Letizia Moratti's 44.8% - struck a blow.

While the loss of his beloved home town does not affect Berlusconi's majority and is unlikely to bring down the government, it is being seen as a significant psychological victory for the left.

Leaders of Berlusconi's party are to meet on Wednesday to discuss the outcome.

Italian newspapers called the defeat a "humiliation", a "collapse" and a "tornado" and cast doubt on the legally embattled Berlusconi's future.

"The Cavaliere's lost magic" was the headline of an editorial in the daily La Stampa, which said the vote "signals a strong wind of change" in Italy.

Even Vittorio Feltri, a pro-Berlusconi columnist for the newspaper Libero, called for "an antidote to the decline" and said the prime minister had to "return to dealing with the problems of Italians" and not just his legal troubles.

Corriere della Sera said Berlusconi and his ally Umberto Bossi, leader of the populist Northern League party, had been "humiliated".

Business daily Il Sole 24 Ore said the losses in Milan and Naples were "a double tornado." "The transformation is profound and radical," it said.

La Repubblica said: "The communes of Italy are sending a clear message to Silvio Berlusconi: the spell is broken, the country wants to turn the page."