COLLEEN BARRY, Associated Press
MILAN -- The Moroccan teen at the center of the underage prostitution scandal enveloping Premier Silvio Berlusconi insists any damage she has suffered has been at the hands of the media - not the Italian premier.
Neither Karima el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby, nor Berlusconi were present at the opening of Berlusconi's trial Wednesday on charges that he paid the teen for sex when she was underage, and then used his influence to try to cover it up.
Both have denied ever having had sex with each other - and Ruby is not budging from that line.
Named an injured party by the prosecution, el-Mahroug could have petitioned to become a civil complainant in the trial, which would have allowed her to seek monetary damages in case of conviction and also question witnesses in the case.
But, her lawyer said, it also would have been a tacit admission of the prosecutors' allegations.
"This contrasts with what Karima has always declared. She has always said she never the object of sexual acts by Premier Berlusconi, and she has never made the choice to be a prostitute," Paola Boccardi said.
El-Mahroug does not feel that any damage she has suffered was due to Berlusconi, the lawyer said.
"There is a damage, it is a damage from the media. Karima, all over the whole world, is seen as a prostitute. When this young woman walks down the street, well-off men, very normal men, in their 50s, stop and make fun of her, saying 'Bunga, bunga,'" a term reportedly describing sexually charged dancing at Berlusconi's villa.
"This I find disconcerting," Boccardi said, adding that no one has ever come forward to say they had paid for sex with the teen.
In Italy, prostitution is not a crime, but paying for sex with someone under 17 is, since Berlusconi's own government toughened the law to raise the age of child prostitution from 16. Ruby was 17 during the period prosecutors allege she frequented Berlusconi's villa in Arcole, outside Milan, accepting cash and gifts in exchange for sexual favors. She has since turned 18.
The underage prostitution charge carries a possible prison term of six months to three years. The abuse of office charge - based on phone calls seeking el-Mahroug's release from custody for alleged theft - is even more dangerous: it carries a sentence of four to 12 years, and if Berlusconi is sentenced to more than five years, he would be barred from ever again holding public office.
Wednesday's trial opened under tight security, with dozens of police in riot gear circling the monumental Fascist-era courthouse. They were relegated mostly to keeping dozens of pro- and anti-Berlusconi protesters - who took up positions on opposite sides of the street - from scuffling, or getting hit by passing traffic
It lasted all of seven minutes, enough time for role call and to set a new trial date for May 31.
Despite Berlusconi's absence and the procedural nature of the first hearing, more than 100 journalists packed the courtroom, where officials had draped in white cloth three huge barred cells - normally exposed - that have held defendants in domestic terror trials.
Police officials who were contacted by the premier or his office the night that el-Mahroug was taken into custody have also decided against being declared civil complainants. However, a woman's right organization, Arcidonna, is asking to be allowed to participate as a civil plaintiff to defend the dignity of women.
The panel of three female judges will decide at the next session whether to accept the request.
The scandal has angered ordinary Italian women who have protested the image projected by the parade of aspiring, young showgirls who frequented the premier's residence, not to mention the bevy of beautiful women promoted into politics by Berlusconi, including the minister for equal opportunity, Mara Carfagna, a former starlet.
"They take away the hope for our future," Gaia Rocchi, a 21-year-old studying art conservation in Milan, said outside the tribunal. Young women, she said, should not be made to feel they need to trade on their looks or sexuality to move ahead - something that is completely at odds with the reality for most Italian women.
"The reality is that Italian women are workers. They work for less pay than men, and don't get the same positions," Rocchi said, adding that if things don't change, she will look for work abroad.
Prosecutors say el-Mahroug was one of many young women who frequented raucous parties at the premier's villa that started with dinner, and progressed to erotic dancing before Berlusconi would chose a sex partner. Three close Berlusconi aides could also face trial separately for allegedly organizing the girls and their payments.
The teen herself has acknowledged she received euro7,000 ($10,014) in cash from the premier the first time they met, on Valentine's Day 2010, but insists it was not in exchange for sex, just an act of generosity from the premier, whose media empire has made him a billionaire.
Berlusconi's defense and political allies are trying to get the trial moved out of the Milan tribunal, which the premier maintains is politically slanted against him. They want the case transferred to the Tribunal of Ministers, which deals with offenses committed by public officials in the execution of their duties.
Parliament on Tuesday asked the country's Constitutional Court to decide which body has jurisdiction. The Tribunal of Ministers would need parliament's authorization to proceed with the trial - something that would likely be denied in a Berlusconi-controlled house.
Berlusconi's lawyer, Giorgio Perroni, said the defense team would decide in the coming weeks if they will seek to have the trial suspended until the higher court can rule.
The premier's defense argues he contacted police officials seeking el-Mahroug's release from custody because he believed at the time that she was the niece of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and he wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident.
Author and commentator Beppe Severgnini, who attended the hearing, expressed a sense of battle fatigue at the premier's ongoing legal trials, now in their second decade.
"I was here 18 years ago. Same courthouse, same lawyers. We are stuck, while the world is moving on," Severgnini said. "The Arab world is rising up, the British prime minister is young and the French president has married an Italian. The world changes, not Italy."
Berlusconi is also defending himself in three other cases alleging tax fraud or corruption in relation to his business dealings.
Since entering politics in 1994, Berlusconi has said he has been the subject of 105 investigations that have resulted in 28 trials.
He has always either been acquitted, or seen the statute of limitations expire.
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