Milan: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi`s trial on charges of sex with an alleged under-age prostitute and abuse of power opened in Milan on Wednesday after a dramatic build-up that has dented his popularity.
Berlusconi himself did not attend the hearing and the judges immediately adjourned the trial to May 31. The woman at the centre of the case, Karima El Mahroug, now 18 -- better known as "Ruby the Heart Stealer" -- was not present either.
The defence has said it will call US actor George Clooney and Real Madrid football star Cristiano Ronaldo to testify -- in a bid to undermine statements about both men made to prosecutors in testimony by El Mahroug.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini is also reportedly on the witness list.
The 33 women named by the prosecution as having taken part in masked orgies and erotic dances with Berlusconi are also expected to testify.
The billionaire tycoon is no stranger to the dock after years of investigations and trials linked to his business interests but this will be the first time that his tumultuous personal life is exposed in a courtroom.
The trial has attracted intense domestic and international media interest, with more than 100 journalists from around the world attending the hearing.
On the eve of the hearing, Berlusconi`s coalition in parliament approved a motion that challenges the prerogative of the court in Milan to try the prime minister indicating the case should be heard by a special court for ministers.
The vote, which is non-binding and will not halt the trial but opens the way for the Constitutional Court to consider the matter, was branded as "shameful" and "unconstitutional" by the centre-left opposition.
The twice-divorced 74-year-old has made no secret of his love for beautiful young women but vehemently denies having sex on several occasions last year with then 17-year-old nightclub dancer El Mahroug. She also denies having sex with Berlusconi.
Berlusconi also says he ensured she was released from police custody after she was detained for theft in order to avoid a diplomatic incident because he thought she was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Wednesday`s hearing comes after months of wire taps by prosecutors in Milan in a mafia-style investigation that fills 20,000 pages of files and details of which have been splashed across Italian tabloids.
The underage sex charge carries a maximum sentence of three years, while the abuse of power accusation is punishable by up to 12 years in prison.
Berlusconi has laughed off the charges, which he describes as "absurd".
"I`m nearly 75 years old and even if I am naughty... 33 women in two months seems a bit too much for me," the prime minister joked in March.
But his ratings have been hit, plunging to a new record low of 33 percent in March according to a poll by Italy`s IPR Marketing Institute.
Hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets in Italy to protest against the playboy tycoon after the scandal first broke, and rejoiced when it transpired the ageing Latin lover would be judged by a panel of three women.
The "Ruby" trial is the third ongoing trial involving the prime minister -- another is for tax fraud linked to his Mediaset business empire and a second is for alleged bribery of British lawyer David Mills to give false testimony.
Berlusconi has denied all charges and has accused prosecutors of conspiring against him in a left-wing plot.
"Communism never changes in Italy. There are still people who use the penal code as a weapon in their ideological battles," he said last month.