Berlusconi 'Rubygate' appeal opens

Silvio Berlusconi's appeal against a conviction for paying for sex with a teen prostitute began Friday without the former premier, who was doing community service for tax fraud.

The 77-year-old was sentenced last year to seven years in jail and banned from public office for having sex with "Ruby the Heart Stealer" at what prosecutors described as erotic parties at his luxury home.

While Italy tends to be lenient towards over-70s found guilty of non-violent crimes, a definitive guilty verdict could see Berlusconi placed under house arrest.

The first appeal hearing fixed the date for the prosecution closing speech as July 11, and said the verdict would be handed down on July 18.

"We are convinced our defence argument is strong," Berlusconi's lawyer Franco Coppi told AFP outside the court after the hearing.

"Berlusconi is convinced he is innocent, and this gives him a great deal of strength" with which to face the appeal trial, he said.

Asked if the billionaire will be attending future hearings, Coppi said he would do "if we believe it to be useful or necessary."

"Seeing as his every movement brings with it a series of problems, we will try to avoid it," he said, in an apparent reference to Berlusconi's knack for attracting bad publicity by railing against judges he claims are persecuting him for political motives.

- 'Burlesque contests' -

The media mogul has been forced to drop the lawyers who defended him in the initial trial, after they were caught up in a witness corruption probe launched amid allegations of bribes paid to girls taking the stand to defend Berlusconi.

Forty-five people are under investigation, including Berlusconi, his lawyers, Ruby and several other young women.

The three-time premier has repeatedly denied having sex in 2010 with then 17-year-old exotic dancer Ruby -- whose real name is Karima El-Mahroug -- during parties that witnesses said featured nudity and strippers dressed as nuns.

El-Mahroug told the first trial about attending "sensual" soirees that invitees nicknamed "bunga bunga" in a discotheque at Berlusconi's villa, saying she was paid 2,000 or 3,000 euros ($2,600 or $3,900) a night -- but she also denied having sex with the tycoon.

Berlusconi says they were "normal dinner parties" followed by "burlesque contests".

Judges based the initial guilty verdict on wire-taps of phone conversations between Ruby and other girls who attended the parties, as well as witness testimonies who described prostitutes entertaining the ex-premier.

He was also found guilty of abusing his powers by having an aide call a police station to press for the busty glamour girl's release from custody when she was arrested for suspected theft.

His defence claimed he believed El-Mahroug was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident, but prosecutors insisted that was a bid to conceal their relationship.

The punishment was suspended during the appeals process, which could last months if the case goes to the Supreme court.

Berlusconi -- who was definitively convicted for tax fraud last year -- was absent from court because he was performing his community service, which involves helping out weekly in a hospice for Alzheimer's patients.