Silvio Berlusconi Hearings to Begin Wednesday

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

It will be the highest profile Italian court case in decades, with witnesses including George Clooney.

ROME -- The most visible of the three active trials against Italy’s media tycoon-turned-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is set to get underway Wednesday in what the local press says promises to be a media circus.

The case -- in which the 74-year-old Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with an underage exotic dancer and then abusing his power as prime minister to get her out of a legal bind -- is actually the only one of the three trials that is not directly linked to Mediaset, the broadcasting and content giant Berlusconi controls. But it could still have a significant impact on Mediaset’s future, as legal experts say it is the case in which Berlusconi is most likely to be convicted, something which carries up to 15 years total jail time.

A top Berlusconi aide said Tuesday that the prime minister would not attend the opening proceedings since they would focus mostly on procedural matters. But the event nonetheless promises to be a spectacle: Both anti-Berlusconi protesters and allies of the prime minister are expected to gather in front of the Milan courthouse, for what is being billed as the highest profile Italian court case in decades. The witness list includes film star George Clooney and his showgirl girlfriend, Elisabetta Canalis and magistrates in Milan said they have fielded more than a thousand press requests for the trial.

In an effort to keep the process from becoming a “circus,” Italy’s attorney general and the state prosecutor have agreed to bar television cameras from the courtroom, reversing a previous ruling that would have allowed state broadcaster RAI to film the trial.

Analysts said in recent days that Mediaset shares had mostly priced in the news related to Berlusconi’s trial. In heavy trading Tuesday, the shares were down 0.5 percent to €4.52 ($6.33) and have traded within a relatively narrow price band since the start of the year.

In the other two court cases, which have already gotten underway, Berlusconi is accused of paying British lawyer David Mills a $600,000 bribe for him to lie on Berlusconi’s behalf during a court proceeding related to Mediaset, and for tax evasion related to kickbacks for the acquisition of content for the Milan-based Mediaset.