Photo Gallery: Berlusconi's Ruby Problem

Foto: Fabrice Thuile/ AP

Legalis Interruptus Berlusconi's Prostitution Trial Adjourned after Seven Minutes

It is the legal event of the year, but the Milan prostitution trial against Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi adjourned shortly after it began on Wednesday. Public interest is unlikely to subside, but the delay could be just the respite that the premier's fragile right-wing coalition needs for survival.

A fresh coat of paint, the lamps dusted and polished, the wiring refurbished: The courtroom in the Tribunale di Milano was all ready for the trial of the year. At 9:30 a.m., the prosecution of Silvio Berlusconi -- the 74-year-old media czar, billionaire and Italian prime minister -- got under way. And just seven minutes later, the courtroom encounter was over -- for now. The trial was adjourned until May 31.

The delay is not likely to reduce the intense interest in the case. Berlusconi stands accused of having paid for multiple sexual encounters with Karima el-Mahroug, who was 17 years old at the time. In addition, he has been charged with misusing his public office in attempts to cover up the affair.

Television vans belonging to camera teams from around the world began lining up on the Corso di Porta Vittoria in Milan's city center on Tuesday afternoon. Photographers, radio journalists and print reporters likewise descended on the Milan palace of justice.

But the audience was disappointed on Wednesday. As expected, Berlusconi did not make an appearance at the proceedings and el-Mahroug -- alias "Ruby Rubacuori," or simply "Ruby" -- was also absent.

Still, the onlookers are almost sure to be back in late May. The trial, after all, promises to include a parade of prominent witnesses -- from George Clooney to Real Madrid soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. The court has yet to make a final decision on the invite list.

Berlusconi's Political End?

But for Berlusconi, the hype is secondary. The trial could mark the beginning of the end of his political career -- even if he ultimately manages to avoid a guilty verdict.

It is far from the first trial against the controversial Italian prime minister. He has survived more than a dozen legal proceedings in recent years: some with a "not guilty" verdict, others due to the statute of limitations or dismissal. The Italian daily La Repubblica has counted 33 occasions when Berlusconi has used his parliamentary majority to change laws, allowing him to dodge the judiciary.

This time too, his political allies are working on a legislative back door for Berlusconi. Just on Tuesday, they managed to push through an act of parliament that seeks to deny the Milan court jurisdiction and move the hearing to a special ministerial tribunal. The vote was not initially binding on the Ruby case, and the trial could begin as planned. But the act is now under examination by the Italian high court.

Still, in comparison to Berlusconi's previous legal difficulties, the current case is of a different caliber. Earlier cases -- some of which are ongoing -- involved accusations of accounting irregularities, tax evasion and bribery, complicated proceedings that were difficult for many in Italy to follow. Convoluted legalese and opaque evidence made it almost impossible for outsiders to say with any degree of certainty whether or not the defendant was guilty. Many in Italy quickly lost interest.

But this trial is different. Prime Minister Berlusconi is to make a rare court appearance, famous stars will take the stand and dozens of attractive young women are also scheduled to appear, from beauty queens to showgirls to television anchors. At its core, the trial is about sex -- high-end prostitution worth several thousand euros -- not to mention expensive jewelry and free apartments.

'Nice Dinners' or 'Orgies'?

And it is beginning to look as though Berlusconi's erstwhile supporters among the Italian population are finally growing tired of -- and embarrassed by -- their rambunctious regent. His public opinion survey numbers have recently cratered.

In the past, Italian voters had proven much more forgiving. When a former mafia hit-man mentioned Berlusconi's name in connection with a bomb attack, the Italians opted for disbelief. An alleged liaison with a schoolgirl from Naples dominated headlines for a time in 2009. But the accusations seemed to bother no one except for Berlusconi's wife, who divorced him as a result.

But the world-famous "bunga bunga" parties in Berlusconi's spacious Milan villa would seem to have drastically reduced Italians' capacity for forgiveness. Berlusconi's defense team has said the parties merely involved "nice dinners" followed by movies and karaoke. Prosecutors say they were orgies.

Italian women are particularly outraged by the case. They were long among the most loyal supporters of Berlusconi, a former vacuum-cleaner salesman and nightclub singer before he became a self-made billionaire and three-time prime minister. Now, they see him as a misogynist, his escapades shameful and degrading. In February, hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets of several Italian cities in protest. For weeks, petitions have been circulating in the country in an effort to force new elections.

Berlusconi was granted temporary relief in recent weeks as news from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Japan dominated the headlines, and the premier's private life receded to the back pages. Now, however, with the trial having seen its first day in court, Berlusconi's profligate lifestyle is once again on page one.

Likely to Take a Beating

His defense team plans to play for time, as it has done in the past. His attorneys have called 78 witnesses, in an effort to extend the proceedings and perhaps turn the trial into a farce. First and foremost, they hope to call into question Ruby's credibility: The charges against Berlusconi are primarily based on her telephone calls which were tapped by the authorities.

The strategy, though, seems unlikely to find success. On almost every day of the trial, new and embarrassing details will enter the public realm -- easy to understand, accessible to all, and plastered across the front pages of Italian tabloids. Wednesday's delay, though, might help Berlusconi avoid immediate political repercussions: Municipal elections in over 1,300 Italian cities are scheduled for mid-May, before the trial really gets going.

And there isn't a complete dearth of optimism in the Berlusconi camp. Italy's left-wing opposition, after all, is hardly in better shape than the premier's fragile right-wing coalition: The left is hopelessly divided by incessant bickering and is seemingly unable to set aside their differences to form any kind of alliance. Indeed, Italian voters may ultimately slink back to Berlusconi's right-wing camp -- and choose the degenerate they know over the ineptness they don't.