By Ian Simpson
MILAN (Reuters) - Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was set to appear in court for the first time in almost eight years on Monday, in a trial over alleged fraud during the acquisition of television broadcasting rights.
The constitutional court lifted Berlusconi's immunity from trial earlier this year, exposing him to three corruption and fraud cases linked to his Mediaset broadcasting empire and a separate trial in which he is accused of having sex with an underage prostitute.
Berlusconi, whose approval ratings have plummeted in recent months, arrived at the Milan court at around 0745 GMT. The last time the 74-year old prime minister appeared in court was in June 2003.
Prior to the constitutional court ruling in January, the cases had been frozen due to a law which allowed him to claim that he was too busy with his official duties to prepare his defense adequately and stand trial.
He and several other people including his son Pier Silvio Berlusconi, who is deputy chairman of Mediaset, are accused of fraud and embezzlement over the acquisition of television rights for inflated prices.
The defendants reject the accusations.
"None of the facts on which the Milan prosecutors have built their case are true," Prime Minister Berlusconi said in a telephone interview on Italian television on Monday, ahead of the hearing which was due to start at 0800 GMT.
About 60 of his supporters gathered outside the Milan tribunal, waving flags and placards in defense of the premier.
"These are all moves by the political left to take power even if they do not have enough votes. They don't know how to get him out," said a 70-year-old man outside the court.
A separate trial in which Berlusconi is accused of bribery reopened in Milan last week but the premier, who was due to brief the cabinet on the Libya emergency, did not appear in court.
When asked if he would attend other hearings as part of a change in his defensive strategy, Berlusconi said, "I will go to those when I can be present, aiming to not suspend the trials because all the trials are absolutely absurd and built on nothing."
Berlusconi has denied doing anything illegal in any of the cases and says he has been unfairly targeted by politically motivated magistrates who want to bring him down.
The most high profile case, in which the premier is accused of paying for sex with a teenage nightclub dancer named Karima el Mahroug, better known under her stage name Ruby, is due to start on April 6.
(Writing by Catherine Hornby and Gavin Jones; Editing by Jon Hemming)